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Friday
Oct072016

The Birth of a Nation (2016)

On Rape and Reparations

Early in The Birth of a Nation, Virginia plantation owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) purchases a slave as a wedding gift for his sister. Advising him in the sale is Turner’s longest serving slave, Nat (played by writer/director Nate Parker), whom he considers a childhood friend. Nat takes an instant liking to a distraught young woman on the auction block named Cherry (Aja Naomi King), who he knows will be better off with the Turners than with the slovenly, drooling old men competing against his master. Later, as Nat tries to get Cherry out of a wagon and deliver her to the servants’ hovel for cleanup, his tenderness is met with crazed, slashing rage. Cherry struggles to get away before collapsing in utter exhaustion.

Until this moment, I’d wondered if the only thing going for The Birth of a Nation was the controversy surrounding a 1999 Penn State rape case involving Parker and Jean Celestin, with whom he co-wrote the story. The film’s first fifteen minutes are pure “slave movie”: well shot, well-acted, and authentic-feeling enough, but lacking in any artistic flourishes that might have suggested Parker was doing more than playing on audiences’ easiest emotions regarding one of America’s longest, bleakest chapters. Cherry’s ferocious display, though, made me think of another context in which Parker may have tried to wrangle a disoriented college-age girl.

Coincidentally, it was here that the movie took a turn for the better, even without the theoretical subtext, which we’ll get back to in a bit. Nat’s unusual ability to read and recite scripture gains the attention of other local plantation owners, who request that Samuel allow them to speak to their slaves. The Birth of a Nation takes place against a backdrop of drought and economic uncertainty, which trickles down to harsher slave conditions and rumblings of an uprising. A slave reading the Good Book to other slaves, some figure, will inspire perseverance and, more importantly, loyalty to the Earthly fathers.

Samuel makes an increasingly tidy profit from Nat’s “speaking fees”, and Nat shores up his own currency, stockpiling memories of the deplorable conditions and unspeakable cruelty with which slaves outside the Turner estate are treated. He uses scripture as a plain-sight weapon against his brothers’ and sisters’ oppressors: the rifle-toting rednecks standing behind him at each sermon assume that the thunderous declarations of God smiting the wicked relate only to His alleviating the oppressive drought.

Late in the film, Nat has a vision of the compounded indignities he’s witnessed, both cosmic and human—most notably, Cherry’s rape at the hands of a cruel, greasy mob.* Channeling his rage into a divinely inspired call to revolt, he conspires with other slaves to overthrow Turner and eventually take control of a nearby armory. To Parker’s credit, we’re largely spared the gory spectacle of the two resulting massacres (the rebellion itself, which left 60 whites dead, and the establishment’s retaliation, which claimed more than 200 black lives).

I’m conflicted about my use of the word “spared”. In an earlier scene, Parker blows up a Bible passage about wrath, wherein God promises to deliver unrelenting vengeance upon wicked men, women, children, and even livestock. We know from history that women and children were killed during the uprising, but Parker largely limits his depictions of axes to the chest to cartoonishly despicable hicks who practically sweat the “N” word. Seeing that passage, presented with a glowing, golden aura, I dreaded the powder keg of graphic violence that was sure to follow. The uprising itself is subdued—not quite a dud, but not nearly as impactful as had Parker risked actually turning off his audience by brutalizing the innocent as well as the culpable.

On the other hand, he makes some remarkable choices in depicting the aftermath, from cinematographer Elliot Davis’ nauseating depth-of-field reveal (Hint: it begins with a close-up of a butterfly) to Parker’s re-interpreting Nat Turner’s execution as a slave-era Stations of the Cross. The symbolism is facile but effective; roll your eyes all you want at the Nat-Turner-as-Jesus allegory (I certainly did when Parker put an actual White Devil** on-screen), but in the context of Turner’s life story, it makes absolute sense. Guided by decades of scripture outlining the injustice of slavery, and later finding himself in the same circumstances as the only revolutionary for whom he'd a frame of reference, it’s not inconceivable that Turner (and, by extension) Parker would find solace and inspiration in the symbolism of it all.

There’s a far more problematic use of symbolism at the heart of The Birth of a Nation but, like the rest of the questions Parker presents us, the journey to finding answers is fraught with paradoxes. Cherry’s rape may very well have been a fabrication on the part of Parker and Celestin. Though not an improbable scenario, given the attitudes of the day, it appears as though the filmmakers went to the Dead/Injured Girlfriend trope in order to give their reluctant hero a concrete motivation fight back.

In the moment, Parker handles the material very well. We don’t see the incident—again, the director channels our collective horror into the results, not the catalyst. Cherry even pleads with Nat to trust that the Lord will mete out justice. But the fact that Parker and Celestin, in detouring from the guide path of history, chose rape as one of Nat Turner’s last straws suggests something either sinister or tragic—possibly both.

It is a matter of record that the two men were tried for rape in 2001. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was convicted. That conviction was later overturned. In 2012, the victim committed suicide. As with all artists whose work is either momentarily or permanently overshadowed by personal controversy, the guilt or lack thereof becomes immaterial. Neither Parker nor Celestin can be considered “innocent”, but they are, per the only system we have, not guilty.

So the question becomes, is there an element of sickening braggadocio in The Birth of a Nation? A victory lap for two creators whose careers have not been demolished by accusations of sexual battery?

Again, why did Nat Turner’s wife have to be raped?

The mob could have attacked his daughter or killed his best friend, or committed any other number of atrocious, bridge-too-far acts. But, no, they struck right at the heart of Turner’s manhood—his loving wife whom, within the widely accepted constraints of contemporary marriage, was subservient to him, just as Nat was subservient to Samuel Turner. Nat and Cherry’s relationship is depicted as a loving one and a consensual one, but even the manner in which Cherry came into Nat’s life (he helped shop for her, essentially) suggests a deliberate and almost exploitive decision on the writers’ part, one that they ripped from their own real-life headlines in order to show how thoroughly they’d skirted public and criminal consequence.

From another angle, it’s entirely possible that Parker (and, to a lesser extent, Celestin, who has a story credit instead of a full screenwriting credit) has chosen to exorcise his own guilty feelings about what happened in 1999, and the terrible after effects of that night. Could his depiction of Cherry as a tragic but strong figure whom his character wants to avenge be an artistic and very public admission of himself as a flawed and repentant father of four young girls—one who will never be able to adequately atone for actions that might charitably be described as boneheaded college-kid behavior or, at worst, a monstrous disregard for individual human sovereignty?

Indeed, as the film speaks to the hot-button themes of a minority community lashing out against an increasingly violent (or maybe just an increasingly caught) authoritarian law enforcement super-structure, it might also be looked at as a subconscious call to arms against sexual predation. It’s the mirror image of Nat Turner’s slave sermons: as he preaches to one audience about justice, there’s another standing just behind him, calling him to account for his sins. If The Birth of a Nation really is Parker’s bid for redemption, I’m not the one to offer it. But I can't deny that his film is, on some level, a problematic work of undeniable sincerity, one that cannot be dismissed out of hand.

*A mob run by the mayor of Hollywood Central Casting’s “Slimeball Hills” subdivision, Jackie Earle Haley.

**Not for nothing, the character looks like one of the Engineers from Prometheus cosplaying Darth Sidious.

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