Nearly everyone has heard of The Birth of a Nation. Not D.W. Griffith’s groundbreaking, disturbing 1916 silent featuring the Ku Klux Klan, with a narrative that does all but exalt the white supremacist organization. I’m talking about director/writer/star Nate Parker’s reclamation of Griffith’s title, repurposed to tell the story of Nat Turner, the leader of the largest slave revolt in American history.
But the story we hear in the media, once a critical coronation, is now solely focused on Parker’s suspect past. Charged with the rape of a female Penn State student in 2001, Parker was acquitted of all charges. A fellow wrestling teammate of his, however, was convicted of sexual assault for the same incident. That conviction was turned over by a Superior Court judge, citing the defendant’s ineffective legal representation.
The woman – who became a mother – committed suicide at the age of 30 in 2012.
The media’s rightful scrutiny of Nate Parker’s past has become a proverbial firestorm, possibly affecting the film’s chances of box office and awards season success. It poses an impossible dilemma – one that requires us to carefully examine race and sexual violence, particularly in the closely watched world of Hollywood.
This press narrative looms over The Birth of a Nation and its creator. With recent shocking verdicts (namely Brock Turner’s six-month sentencing and three-month incarceration), it comes as no surprise that many are skeptical of the events that reportedly transpired.
Nate Parker’s past is open to discussion. He’s in the limelight, and scrutiny comes with celebrity. But I must meditate on how much race plays a part in the debate. I was privy to a pre-screening of The Birth of a Nation, in which the audience was predominantly Black American. It was a full house. But it perplexed me how few white audience members were present given the immense success of 12 Years a Slave (a theater experience after which I vividly recall a predominantly white audience) just three years prior.
A few months ago I attended another pre-screening of what is, perhaps, a film on the opposite spectrum of both context and artistic intent. Woody Allen’s Café Society had drawn a nearly all-white viewership in what was also a full house. It was a film that was a healthy mixture of self-reference and self-subversion, featuring an unusually strong female character played by Kristen Stewart, opposite Jesse Eisenberg.
So, why would a movie, written and directed by a man accused of child molestation, draw such a large monochromatic audience? The same audience, of course, was curiously absent from The Birth of a Nation, written and directed by a Black man who was charged and acquitted of rape. Is elected ignorance deserving of race-based preference?
It is no secret that systemic stereotypes – dating back to the Reconstruction Era’s extra-legally motivated advertising – still haunt Black artists and entertainers today. White consumers are quick to forgive the Woody Allens, Roman Polanskis, and Sean Penns of the world, but are slow let go of the fear of the Black Brute. Of course, we must hold each to basic standards of human decency regardless of gender or race.
If we boycott one, why not boycott the other? If we financially support one, why not the other? Everyone must choose how they approach Nate Parker’s past and present, but each person should seriously consider why a Black man is more deserving of condemnation than Michael Bay, Nicolas Cage, Alec Baldwin, John Lennon, Michael Fassbender, Mickey Rourke, Josh Brolin, Christian Bale. Parker is a serious artist who is not likely to be granted the same pardons as those listed above. I’d argue that given the facts and series of events, none of them are.
But a rare thing happened in the theater; an entirely unexpected experience met me in what I thought would be an awkward, if not regretful encounter with this year’s most controversial film. It was different from any experience before it. I was unaware it was an experience I needed (nor one to which I was not entitled), and one that brought me to tears.
I can’t recall ever having seen a film about slavery with a majority Black audience. I can remember a room full of aging White Liberals atoning for White Guilt by attending art-house, awards-worthy, quenchingly approachable Black films. My experience in The Birth of a Nation was not that.
As a young boy, Nat Turner learned how to read by studying the Bible, taught by his master’s wife. He would grow up to preach in a shack to fellow slaves. With an unmatched public speaking talent and an encyclopedic novel of scripture, he would inspire those around him. Parker as Turner delivers these rapturous sermons with transcendent fervor.
Quoting scripture that condemns oppression and gives hope, Turner and his Word spoke pointedly to the theater’s assembly. It was similar to attending Worship, like an enthusiastic collective responsory from a congregation – an audience wholly invested in both Nat Turner’s biography and germane liturgy, woefully applicable to contemporary society’s toxicities.
It wasn’t Turner’s story, nor Parker’s rendering of it that inspired my tears (though both are worthy of such an emotional reaction), but the realization that I hadn’t experienced anything like this before. To be in a room full of people seeing, hearing, and feeling a story made by them, for them, and about them, is a unique thing one cannot take for granted, especially with the often marginalized subjects are rarely given authentic voices. I know something akin to that feeling, but certainly not from the Black American perspective.
There were moments of humor to which I would not have been awakened had I not seen the film with a Black audience. My friend observed the same peculiar moments of humor, contemplating that it was perhaps our white guilt preventing us from finding any comic relief in such a serious film addressing the darkest moments of our nation’s past – she may be right.
I don’t feel comfortable asking white people to seek out a “black experience” in The Birth of a Nation – if it happens it happens, and you should be observant, aware, empathetic, and listen actively. Ultimately, The Birth of a Nation is a significant film about an extraordinary hero played by an immense talent with a questionable past for an audience that deserves such a quality work of art.
Let it exist as it is and intended to be. But please support these films to encourage more exposure to compelling true narratives conjured by artists of new perspectives. It improves our experiences and perceptions. It can broaden the ways in which we digest art and its purpose. It can open doors to uncomfortable discussions we should all be having – this is the purpose of art, artists, and their curators.
Ian Nichols can be found on Twitter: @iantilnic