At the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night, two back-to-back screenings of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nationwere met with standing ovations from both audiences. The crowd was there to see the first festival screening of the lightning-rod film since its Sundance premiere, as well as writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker and 17 members of his cast and crew, who joined him onstage for post-film Q&A sessions.
Both the questions and the answers at the 9PM show tended to ramble — one audience member took at least three minutes to ask, in essence, "What can white people do to help support people of color?" and in return, she got a meandering and not entirely relevant response from Birth co-star Armie Hammer. At another point, co-star Gabrielle Union spoke at length in defense of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and his protests during the National Anthem at football games, to scattered applause. When it came to the film, though, the cast and crew members who spoke were to some on message, defending Parker as a good man and a generous director in the wake of the renewed questions over his college rape case, which was not directly addressed during the conversation.
But one of the questions for Parker got a particularly direct and forceful response. An audience member asked Parker what message he wanted Birth of a Nation to convey to audience members, "in the context of the current presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement." Parker’s response, transcribed:
Someone asked me once, "What do you think the difference is between the civil-rights movement of old, and the current civil-rights movement?" And I had to think about it. What I came out with was, they were willing to die for the change they wanted to see. I look at the story of Nat Turner — I don’t look at someone that sacrificed for a future he’d be able to enjoy. He gave his life for future generations… Nat Turner had an axe, broom handles, that’s all he had. We have much more powerful tools. So I think we should all look at this story, in the sense that this was one person who stood against a system that was oppressing people. And if we can relate to that in 2016, we must ask ourselves, what are we willing to give up? What are we willing to sacrifice for what we want our children, and our children’s children, to enjoy?
There’s this quote, the Bible says "A good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children." And so often, in this very lenient society, we don’t think that with every breath we take, we’re getting closer to the end of our lives. So it’s about what we leave for our children’s children… What do you see in your community that’s unjust, and what are you willing to do to stand against that thing? Whether it be voting — we have a big, massive voting drive — whether it be [dealing with] that person that may not be the most kind in his words when it comes to racial sensitivity, or whatever it is. I think we all have to look to ourselves to see what we can be changing, in terms of moving forward. What do we require of ourselves? And I’d love to get answers from other people, but I think that the first question has to be internal. What can we do to affect the kind of change we want to see, and how can we be that change?
So much of the conversation around the film now seems like preprepared talking points and deflections, endlessly repeated, with minor variations. (Parker is a good man, many people worked on this film besides Parker, we're just honored to be here.) So it was actually a relief to get so directly back to what makes the film relevant, and to find a topic where Parker seemed not just on firm ground, but ready to speak with the force of personal conviction. And it was a relief to see him reflecting larger issues outside of his own current battles. It's unclear whether the Birth of a Nation conversation will ever fully return to being about the film itself, but this at least felt like one helpful step forward.
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In July of this year, a 25-year-old black army veteran, Micah Johnson, drove to a peaceful Black Lives Matter rally in Dallas, got out of his car with an AK-47 and started shooting at white police officers as retribution for the police shootings of black men in Louisiana and Minnesota. It’s the kind of retaliatory violence that white Americans have feared for centuries. The kind that the writer and author Ta-Nehisi Coates said we should have seen coming. The kind that is depicted in The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s much anticipated and equally maligned slave rebellion film that opened over the weekend. And the kind that, frankly, I’m somewhat astonished we don’t see more often.
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Parker, who wrote, directed and stars in the Nat Turner biopic, which debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival – where it won both the grand jury prize and audience award, and sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5m – has been embroiled in controversy for months; in August, Variety magazine reported the suicide of the woman who accused him of rape 17 years ago. At the height of his publicity tour to promote the film, Parker was besieged with questions and demands for accountability, which he either deflected or addressed in a staged setting with an eerie lack of empathy (made even more noticeable given how the women in the film are depicted, particularly the two who are raped). Judging from this weekend’s box office, where the film brought in far less than projected, maybe he should have handled things a little differently.
Back when the film sold, black America was still reeling from the most recent deaths in what has become a seemingly endless and horrific wave of police killings of black people since the 2014 shooting death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. The month prior, Mario Woods, a 26-year-old black man, was shot 20 times by five police officers in San Francisco after allegedly stabbing a man in the arm. Woods died on the scene, and the police officers went back to work. Tweets and Facebook posts from black people everywhere echoed the same grief-stricken sentiment: “This can’t go on. Stop killing us.”
The racial and political climate was ripe for a film about black uprising, even about one of the bloodiest slave revolts in American history – and soon after, as the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite went viral during the 2016 Oscars, the Academy of Motion Pictures couldn’t believe its good fortune. Oscar buzz was immediate for The Birth of a Nation, and its handsome, hardworking, golden boy director, Nate Parker. I was certainly among the legions of black supporters who saw this as a remarkable and major moment: in the wake of all these black male bodies being killed, here was one black male body that was not just living, but showing up for and on behalf of us, telling our history, and being celebrated for it.
History, though, has a way of being told when and whether we want it to or not, and the death of Parker’s accuser put him and his friend Jean Celestin in the hot seat during a time of heightened awareness of the meaning of “rape culture”.
According to court records, in 1999, a 19-year-old woman at Penn State reported that she had been raped by Parker and Celestin, who, both 20 at the time, claimed the sex was consensual. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and served almost two years in jail. Parker was acquitted of all charges, and now holds firm that he was “vindicated” and so it’s time for everyone to move on.
Black folks quickly divided ourselves into two separate camps: those who will see the film, and those who will not. Roxane Gay wrote an especially poignant essay about why she belongs to the latter camp, in which she states, as a rape survivor: “I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”
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I feel much the same, although as a cultural critic and a black woman who thinks constantly about art and its artists, blackness, womanhood, feminism, as well as my own history of sexual assault and my humanity, I can’t turn away from a film that purports to use art as a way of addressing racial injustice, especially right now, in this particular moment, when we are fighting and dying, rising and falling, and yet still pushing onward out here in this malignant and exacting struggle – there’s too much at stake.
As it turns out, the film is not so much art at all. It’s an egregiously average, sweeping epic drama in the tradition of Braveheart or Spartacus, that is both predictable (Strange Fruit plays while black bodies are swinging from trees; Swing Low, Sweet Chariot underscores the wide shot of a cotton field; a little white girl skips playfully as she leads a little black girl by a rope tied to her neck) and devoid of character development, particularly among the women, who are all one-dimensional (Turner’s beloved nana gives a big speech about pride and heritage and then promptly dies), in direct service of their menfolk, and have about 50 lines between them throughout the two-hour film.
About three-quarters of the way through the screening at a nearly empty theatre in Brooklyn, a young black woman leaned across the open seat between us and whispered as she pointed at the screen: “You think that one with the blood on his shirt is the brother who did time?” I whispered back that I didn’t think Jean Celestin had a role in the film, but that he was credited as co-writer of the movie’s screenplay. She nodded her head, and seemed a little disappointed as she sunk back into her seat – like she’d sat through one whole hour and 45 minutes of this movie waiting for something interesting to happen, and then she couldn’t even get that out of it.
I wasn’t necessarily looking for anything especially interesting to happen, although I was open to being pleasantly surprised – the potential was certainly there. Mostly, I was unmoved by the film. I left the theater thinking not about who we were during pre-civil war slavery, but rather who are not in post-civil war slavery, when black people are profiled and policed and killed and incarcerated for no reason other than being black. The character of Turner’s wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, says virtually the same thing after Nat’s rebellion has failed and black people all across the county are being arbitrarily hanged as punishment.
Slavery has evolved in modern America, but we black Americans have evolved, too. We don’t need to kill white people to get free. We need to kill slavery and the systemic racism that preserves its legacy by continuing to hold up our humanity in a country with a history of not seeing us as human.