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Telling the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion seems to have a cursed history. In 1967, William Styron wrote the best-selling novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, which won the Pulitzer Prize. However, despite popularizing an important event in American history, the novel was met with angry criticism from some African-Americans in part because Styron, who told the story from Nat Turner’s point of view, was white. Even though the novel was supported by black literary giants Ralph Ellison and James Baldwin, a book of criticism by 10 black writers was published dissecting what they deemed blatant cultural appropriation. Today, African-American Nate Parker, the co-writer, director, co-producer and star of the Nat Turner biopic The Birth of a Nation, faces an equal level of harsh public scrutiny that threatens to overshadow his impressive, important and flawed film.
Before I discuss the film, I want to address the controversy about whether or not people should go see a movie made by a man who 17 years ago was tried for rape. It is the same issue of equating the art with the artist that comes up every time a film is released by Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, two significant filmmakers whose works no longer can be judged outside public debates about what they may or may not have done. This raises the question of whether or not we should support any artist who has done wrong: Norman Mailer stabbed his wife; Anne Perry murdered her mother; H.P. Lovecraft, Flannery O’Connor and Patricia Highsmith were racists; Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, Degas and Wagner were anti-Semites. Before writing Lord of the Flies, a high school favorite, William Golding attempted to rape a 15-year-old girl. Despite creating powerful female characters in his plays, Shakespeare cruelly hobbled his own daughters by keeping them illiterate. And William S. Burroughs, the darling of the Beat generation, killed his wife while drunkenly trying to shoot a glass off her head.The difference for most of us is that, in many cases, we can pry the art from the artist because they are dead and cannot profit from our support. In the case of living artists whose morality we are judging, supporting their work can make us feel like accomplices.
I am always reluctant to judge a person’s guilt or innocence based on an accusation because it smacks of the kind of rough vigilantism that justified lynching. Yet I appreciate that we live in a society that even asks the question of whether or not seeing a movie is a moral act, and I respect those that grapple with the decision, as I have. But we have to be especially careful about making public judgments solely based on our sympathies about the nature of the alleged crime.
I wasn’t at Nate Parker’s trial, so I can’t know all the specifics. I tried to do due diligence. I read many articles and interviews, including Goldie Taylor’s articulate and thoughtful article in The Daily Beast in which she, as a victim of sexual assault and someone who read the trial transcript, says she believes Parker is guilty, yet still encourages people to see the film because of its significance in teaching African-American history. I also read the statement in support of Parker and The Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin (who was at first convicted but later exonerated on appeal) by Penn State alumni who were present during the investigation and trial. In their document, they state that “some of us [supporters] are women who have survived sexual violence,” and they detail allegations of racism and bullying by the investigators. Because I can’t know what really happened, and because there is so much conflicting information, I have to rely on the determination of the judicial system.
Innocent until proven guilty.
I’m glad I made that decision because there’s a lot to love in this movie. The story unfolds like an epic poem, with each scene a finely crafted stanza beautifully photographed and often enhanced by a rousing gospel song or a plaintive “Strange Fruit.” The massive seas of cotton, the grand trees hung with Spanish moss and the gorgeous landscapes create a taunting Eden, the heavenly place in which the slaves reside but may never live. Equally impressive is the layered development of Nat Turner as he transitions from hopeless slave to baptizing himself as a free man, however brief that taste of paradise. The most emotionally engaging moments won’t soon be forgotten: slave owners knocking out the teeth of a slave in order to force-feed him; the young black boy holding up a sign that reads, “Slaves for Sale”; Turner wielding a hatchet while leading a charge. Particularly unforgettable is the image of a young white girl skipping across the veranda, a black girl following behind her with a rope around her neck like a leash or noose. What makes this latter image so provocative and memorable is the blank obliviousness of the black girl as she skips along behind. We can see in Nat’s face the realization bloom that if something isn’t done, another generation will grow up thinking this is how things have to be — or worse, should be.
Equally compelling is the scene in which Nat and his owner’s son, Sam, play hide and seek. Sam smiles at Nat as if they will always be lifelong pals, but that hope is crushed as the older Sam (Armie Hammer) increasingly treats his childhood friend with detached indifference and inhumanity. Their final violent confrontation is as much about personal betrayal as it is about slavery.
Though the film is a marvel in so many ways, there are also a few missteps. People of color, myself included, long have complained about the whitewashing of history that does not accurately reflect our experiences in or contributions to America. Last year, a black high school student in Texas noticed his geography textbook referred to slaves as “workers,” which prompted national scrutiny of textbooks filled with historical inaccuracies and omissions, especially when it comes to minorities. I have written several books trying to reclaim and popularize African-American history: What Color Is My World: The Lost History of African-American Inventors, On the Shoulders of Giants: My Journey Through the Harlem Renaissance, Black Profiles in Courage: A Legacy of African-American Achievement, and Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion, WWII’s Forgotten Heroes. However, as much as I dislike whitewashing history, I’m also opposed to blackwashing it by canonizing a person by sanitizing their story. What makes Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing one of the best films ever made is its affection for the characters, not despite their flaws but because of them. When his characters overcome cultural inertia to do something heroic, it taps into that part of us that says we, too, could be heroic.
What makes Nat Turner’s story an inspiration for oppressed people is that he was an ordinary man with strengths and weaknesses who made an extraordinary choice to lead a revolution against tyranny, not unlike the progenitors of the American Revolution. His transformation is uplifting because he is so human. But Parker chooses to mythologize Turner by turning him into a Moses/Christ-like figure. In the movie’s opening scene, a tribal ceremony echoing the characters’ African roots, an elder pronounces Nat a “prophet” and “leader” because of his birthmark moles. This is based on Turner’s own testimony about himself in The Confessions of Nat Turner, which was transcribed by Thomas Ruffin Gray, a lawyer for several of the other slaves in the rebellion — though not Turner — after Turner’s capture. The difference between Turner seeing himself as a prophet of God and being pronounced one by others during this overwrought scene is the attempt to transform Turner from a man with a crisis of faith into the familiar archetype of the epic hero — “The One,” like Neo in The Matrix or Katniss in The Hunger Games. That trivializes the real man. Turner did not turn himself in because he wanted to sacrifice himself to save others; he hid out for two months before being discovered. And, according to records, Turner’s rebels killed at least 10 men, 14 women and 31 infants and children. That’s a harsh reality that should be acknowledged rather than buried because it says a lot about the effects of dehumanizing people until they are left with no other option but behaving inhumanely. Slavery, whether with chains and shackles or institutional racism that destroys hope for a better future, breeds violence. Sometimes that violence takes the form of a revolution targeting the oppressors, but sometimes it’s chaotic, even self-destructive. The black-on-black crime ravaging our inner-city communities is a legacy of this oppression. As is the pattern of unnecessary police violence against unarmed people of color.
A filmmaker is under no obligation to balance the portrayal of whites and blacks, but it can hurt the veracity of the film to have almost all whites portrayed in such stereotypically villainous fashion when all the black characters are portrayed as humble, loving, heart-of-gold men, women and children. If this film is meant to preserve African-American history, this lopsided racial presentation makes it less accessible. The single exception is the wife of Nat’s owner, who, in a limited way, encourages his education. The dinner scene in which she has tears in her eyes as she watches her drunken son act in the same loutish way as her deceased husband is truly touching. More of that kind of nuanced characterization would have helped.
It’s impossible to present a fictionalized account of a historic event that is completely accurate. That would make for a dull film. All the artist can hope to do is represent the spirit of the events and people, seeking to tell a larger truth rather than merely recount facts. In the case of The Birth of a Nation, Parker partially succeeds. He captures the truth of the spirit of defiance necessary for all people to remain free. But in an attempt to romanticize Nat Turner, he overlooks what truly made him heroic and his rebellion a warning bell for the future. But these flaws don’t make the film’s strengths any less effective or admirable. Many of the scenes will continue to haunt me for years to come.
And Parker’s intense performance is a marvel. As a whole, the poetic film reminds me of the final two stanzas of another poem, “This Skin that Carry My Worth,” by Earl Mills, an African-American poet in his 60s who was illiterate until he was 48:
So when you look at me.
This skin that may be darker than you like.
Has been to hell and back.
Yet we stand tall with our heads up and shoulders back.
This dark skin that carry my worth,
Was not my choice it was my birth.
This Skin That Carry My Worth.
Kareem Abdul Jabbar is an author, cultural critic and former star basketball player for the Los Angeles Lakers.
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 16 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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