By: Imani J. Jackson
Deciding whether to support or sit out The Birth of a Nation has inspired an internal tug-o-war for many people, myself included.
On one hand, I respect and understand the outrage directed at Nate Parker. Parker wrote, directed and starred in a rebellion story, which includes rape scenes, and hit the big screen about 17 years after a woman accused Parker and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin of sexual assault in college. On the other hand, a jury of Parker’s peers found him not guilty and Celestin’s conviction was later overturned. These results – coupled with a desire not to penalize the brilliant black actresses who helped bring this story to light – urged me from solidarity by omission (through boycotting) and toward supporting a multifaceted cast whose work tells an important story.
Birth presents a stylized version of Nat Turner’s Rebellion, which began in August 1831. In just under two hours, audiences see a reflection of “the only effective, sustained slave rebellion in U.S. history.” Birth’s audiences witness dualities: brave uprisings and racist retaliation.
Birth is about noble uprising. And during a time when black lives continue to be systematically minimized and cruelly taken, the contribution and creation of varied black stories can be resistance. Cinematically, Birth is provocative, relevant and valiant. The movie reiterates that African people were chattel property, an American history some political actors and school administrators would prefer to cloak in ambiguity. Despite strengths, one of the largest issues with the film’s script and cast is contemporary. Mainstream entertainment and popular culture often bury black women’s prominence in stories of black uplift.
For this reason, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis and Gabrielle Union deserve additional respect. Each displayed creative autonomy in accepting, studying for and playing enslaved women readily erased from the collective consciousness. They beamed back at viewers with communal and discrete power. Viewers would have benefited from seeing more details about enslaved women and their strength and grace.
King’s portrayal of Cherry, Turner’s wife, is elegant and compelling. Ellis’s portrayal of Nancy, Turner’s mom, is stoic and proud. Nancy effectively communicates the wonder and satisfaction of giving birth to a righteous revolt leader. Union’s portrayal of Esther, an enslaved rape survivor who was mute, sears pain into my heart.
Activist-artist-survivor Gabrielle Union said through Esther’s silence “she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular.” Esther symbolizes other historic attacks on black women’s bodily integrity: in the development of gynecology, in eugenics, and in reproductive justice.
And maybe I’m a skeptic, but I did not expect Parker to craft women characters as robustly as men characters. In a recent Ebony interview, Parker discussed his relatively nouveau gender privilege awakening. With male privilege so entrenched in his mind, and likely in his colleagues’ minds, crafting black women characters as inciting incidents, people whose existences set off black men’s actions in a film’s major dramatic curve, seems predictable. Yet, despite less on-screen time, the women on the cast are not less effective. Rather, they highlight black women’s ability to make masterpieces with minimalist tools.
Make no mistake: Birth is phallocentric. The protagonist is an archetypal warrior juxtaposed with white people as destroyers. The antagonistic system against which Turner and his brethren rail is a white male supremacist machine. Birth also conveys the irreconcilable dangers of tiered personhood, namely the physical, mental and routine brutalities white slave owners levied against enslaved African women and men.
Birth is chock full of truisms: Viewers see the dangers of white complicity. Patriarchy compromises women’s systemic power. Black people who aspire for illusory white acceptance will often be disappointed when they reside in cultural crosshairs, and remain viewed under whichever prevailing lens affixes black people of the time. The character Isaiah’s skittish house Negro maneuvers lent credence to this notion.
Birth displays insurrection’s buoyancy and brilliance. It shows black spirituality and loyalty. Viewers see love’s transcendent power. As King told the LA Times, “…It’s such a big deal, the notion that these enslaved Africans had marriages and children … because therein lies our humanity, our capacity for love.” When Cherry and Nat jumped the broom, they reminded audiences that black people have always had legitimate companionship and employed the era’s validating mechanisms.
Movies are meant to entertain. This one is based on, and does not strictly adhere to, a true story. Parker chose to move a non-traditional story in a traditional (read: man saves woman and his people) way. This included making Cherry’s rape Turner’s catalyst.
While historians say this specific woman was not reportedly raped, King (who played the role) also reminded the LA Times that enslaved black women were constantly violated. “If you were a black woman and you were enslaved, the probability of your being raped by your master was extremely high,” she said. The poetic license Parker took in storytelling this way makes sense even though the stanzas are ugly.
On a five-star scale, I give Birth a four. Its visual strengths, humanizing inclusion of black love and spirit, and glorification of freedom fighting outweighed the textual minimization of black women and making Turner the end all be all. Further, the calculated risk the black actresses took in helping tell this story increases opportunities for discourse. Though imperfect, Birth likely reminded many that oppressed people have always and will always resist.
Photo: The Birth of a Nation Promotional Materials (Fox)
Imani J. Jackson is a columnist and policy adviser with Dynamic Education Foundation. She earned a mass communication B.A., with a journalism focus and psychology minor, from Grambling State University and a J.D. from Florida A&M University College of Law. She has written for a variety of publications including the Black Youth Project, USA Today, Teen Vogue and Politic365.