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Why Audiences Must See Nate Parker’s "Birth of a Nation," Despite the Controversy

Nate Parker’s biopic about Nat Turner, The Birth of a Nation, has been the subject of intense debate. Despite the controversy, audiences should see Birth, both for its evocative depictions of slavery and to better understand the roots of racial injustice in the United States.

Birth of a Nation was a critical darling after its premiere at Sundance in January 2016. Its national release was hotly anticipated, and the film was the subject of early Oscar buzz. Birth seemed poised to resolve the recent #oscarssowhite controversy by earning multiple awards for its African-American director and cast.

However, only days after its nationwide opening on October 11, Birth has been declared a “flop.” Though the film was acquired for the highest price ever at Sundance ($17.5m), box office take has been extremely low. As one reviewer wrote, “'The Birth of a Nation' tanks at the box office, time to cancel that awards campaign.

In many ways the film’s downfall is not surprising. Two factors dimmed interest in it. The first were reports that Parker and a friend (Jean Celestin) had been accused of raping an unconscious woman in 1999. Though Parker was acquitted, his discussions of the case inflamed rather than quelled doubts. After Variety reported that the woman had committed suicide in 2012 because of trauma from the incident, public sympathy moved against Parker. Parody posters for the film appeared, reading “Nate Parker Rapist?” AFI cancelled a screening of the film. Rape survivors protested that seeing the film (co-written by Parker and Celestin) would reward Parker and insult the victim’s family. Gabrielle Union, who plays a rape victim in the film and is a sexual assault survivor herself, wrote that “Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”

Expectations for Birth suffered in yet another way. As historians screened the film, they noticed discrepancies between Birth and the historical record surrounding Nat Turner’s Rebellion. Patrick Breen noted that, in contrast to the film’s Turner, the real Turner had been unable to “kill anyone by his own hand” aside from a single white woman. In addition to other changed facts, Breen noted, the film invented a story about rape being the revolt’s cause. In The Nation, Leslie Alexander pointed to larger “inaccuracies, distortions and fabrications” in the film. These ranged from incorrectly suggesting that a child had betrayed the revolt to the film’s depiction of black women as passive victims of sexual violence, dependent on black men to rescue them. The charge that the film minimized the agency of enslaved women has been echoed by other scholars.

I very much appreciate the work of historians who have identified discrepancies between the historical record and the film. They help audiences understand the differences between what they see on screen and historical facts.

At the same time, I lament that the controversy will keep audiences from seeing Birth. Despite its flaws, The Birth of a Nation is an extraordinary film about slavery, one which general audiences need to see.

As a card-carrying historian, aware of factual discrepancies, why do I declare the film a must-see? First, I bring different criteria to viewing historical film, based on the pioneering film historian Robert Rosenstone. In his works, Rosenstone has argued that filmmakers do not need to get every detail right to say something profound about history. Where historians traditionally evaluated films on their fidelity to archives, Rosenstone has argued that this is the wrong criterion: “By academic standards, all historical films are, in fact, laced with fiction. Dramatic works depend upon invention to create incident, plot and character.” To collapse complex histories into films of commercial length, he noted, directors often compress characters, creating composites or “types” to exemplify different reactions to historical processes. Rosenstone has praised the 1989 Civil War film Glory, for instance, for not strictly depicting actual individuals but for creating archetypes which gave viewers a sense of “the various possible positions that blacks could take toward the Civil War and the larger issues of racism and black-white relations.” In his acclaimed study of Holocaust films, the historian Lawrence Baron has similarly argued that feature films can offer “a more tangible sense of how past events were experienced” than scholarly narratives. Baron added that “Movies should not be judged by whether they are historically, politically, or theoretically ‘correct’ but by whether they figuratively or literally evoke… historical circumstances” better than written texts.

In my view, audiences will learn more about slavery and slave revolt – viscerally – from Birth than from nearly any other film about slavery, let alone most written descriptions. Birth is unflinching in its depiction of slavery’s horrors. These range from rape (which, interestingly, takes place off-screen) to tortures inflicted upon slaves who tried to commit suicide by refusing to eat. Rather than look for injustices only in the violence of slave owners, the film also examines the everyday horrors of slavery such as picking cotton. Where many films (most recently Free State of Jones) portray the labor of slaves pastorally, with slaves in neat rows of verdant fields under a shining sun, Parker takes the camera to crop level. He shows the thorns on plants, and the blood that greeted slaves with each pluck.

Other Hollywood films on slavery either minimize its brutality, or feature a “white hero” in whose shoes white audiences can imagine themselves, so they can take comfort in feeling that whites were not all evil. Amistad, Twelve Years a Slave, and Free State of Jones all fit this pattern, pointing to the brutality of slavery but also including a sympathetic white man who saves the slaves. Indeed, though Twelve Years a Slave highlighted the cruelty of slavery, reports have suggested that studios were averse to funding a film with this depiction, until the film’s producer Brad Pitt assured studios that there was a sympathetic white in the film and that he himself would play the role. While Pitt’s character does reflect the memoir on which 12 Years was based, other true stories about slavery, for instance about the Haitian Revolution, remain off screen because of the absence of white heroes, as Danny Glover has lamented.

Remarkably, The Birth of a Nation was picked up by a major studio at a record price, even without a white hero. Indeed, one of the film’s great virtues, as A.O. Scott of the Times has commented, is that it “forcefully dismantles some of the lingering mythology about the Old South. The benevolence or meanness of individual masters makes very little difference in a society built on the total exploitation of human bodies for profit.”

Most strikingly, the film concerns not passive resistance by slaves but armed revolt that includes killing whites. In 12 Years a Slave, the protagonist regains his freedom without violence – thanks to intervention by Pitt’s kindly white character. Hollywood has rarely legitimized black violence in response to injustice, compared with the nonviolent strategies celebrated in films such as Selma. As the film critic James Berardinelli pointed out, “The power of cinema lies in Parker’s ability to convince us that Nat Turner’s Rebellion isn’t a mindless massacre of innocents but a legitimate and righteous retaliation against a cavalcade of inhuman and vile acts.” For a film to lead white audiences to empathize with slaves choosing violence – instead of enduring their treatment silently - is a signal achievement in Hollywood film. Indeed, as some critics have noted, it is as if the fictional Haitian Revolution movie signaled in Chris Rock’s film Top Five (which Rock suggests could never be made) could actually exist.

Certainly, the film is not perfect. Scholars are correct that Birth of a Nation strays from the historical record. The film’s failure to portray the agency of slave women is, in my view, its biggest flaw. And Parker’s own history makes his treatment of rape in the film “creepy and perverse,” as a recent essay by the victim’s sister asserts. I also agree with critics who suggest that Parker (who stars as Turner) is guilty of self-love, of focusing many frames on himself when he should highlight others’ sufferings. Moreover, I would not contest rape survivors’ decision to avoid the movie, both because of the possibility of trauma triggers and because of objections to watching Parker purport to avenge rape victims.

Still, the film’s low box office numbers suggest that white audiences have taken the controversy as license not to see a film that threatened to be difficult and challenging. Audiences gasped when I watched the trailer in spring, with its visual references to lynching. Now these audiences have an excuse not to see the film after all. That would be very unfortunate for popular understandings of slavery, as well as for the fate of future films on slavery. If The Birth of a Nation continues to be a flop, movie funders will not blame Parker’s past alone; they will become even more convinced that films about slavery can only be made if they include heroic whites. Audiences should see Birth – and then debate its strengths and weaknesses. Otherwise, we are unlikely to get better films on slavery, or to understand the roots of current struggles.

© Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall 2016