Admittedly, I am not a part of the “I’m tired of slavery films” posse. A brief look at the number of films on World War II [1] and the Jewish Holocaust [2] demonstrates that narratives of the enslavement of African people and related crimes against African humanity (e.g. Colonialism) are woefully under represented on the big screen. Furthermore, I find the idea that there can be “too many” films on arguably the most defining historical period informing our present-day reality to be frankly, ridiculous.

Critical analysis of the type of films which do make it through however, is an area that must be actively engaged. When one considers the sheer number of African enslavement narratives that are yet untold, it becomes clear that the only true vehicle through which to shape and project such a comprehensive variety is (the makings of) a truly independent African Diasporan film industry. Alas, we are still in the making, therefore these narratives are dominated by Hollywood and the story it chooses to tell – or not tell. Without a doubt, the greatest casualty of the many omissions are films on the enslaved Africans who fought back [3]. It is in this context that a film on the Nat Turner Rebellion must be understood.

Nat Turner

Nat Turner

It can justifiably be said that the story of Nat Turner was kept alive mostly by Black Nationalists. He is the most celebrated archetype of how Africans fought back in the USA, in the same light as Toussaint L’Ouverture and Jean-Jacques Dessalines of Haiti or Queen Nzinga of Angola, and Yaa Asantewaa of Asante Land, Ghana. The terrain has been that of overcoming attempts to overshadow the rebellion with other narratives as well as direct attempts distort it [4]. Whenever the debate around a different slavery narrative comes up, Nat Turner’s is the story at the top of the list.

An independent film, “Nat Tuner Unchained” was announced in 2012 [5]. Complete with a trailer and online auditions it promised to be a no holds barred telling of the epic drama. However, that film project has yet to come to fruition. So when Birth of a Nation (B.O.A.N) was finally announced, after years of encountering Hollywood’s disgraceful record with black narratives it was met with everything from cautious optimism to absolute elation. I was a proponent of the former; the big backing of Fox Searchlight being a significant factor influencing my caution over optimism. Still, I harboured no doubt about the importance of the film and the fact that it would be important to go and see it.

There has definitely been resistance to B.O.A.N; everything from past allegations against Nate Parker taking centre stage in its opening weeks, to reports of people receiving the wrong ticket stubs after booking to see the film, and being told the film was sold out [6]. The current climate is characterised by its deficit of black male characters in powerful culturally and racially affirming roles, and narratives of black men as anything other than abusers of black women are almost completely absent from serious drama. So this film was already going against the grain.

When taking a group of young people to go and see the film, I was struck by the uncharacteristically understated poster that was to be the public face of this historical film. Comparing it to the other posters on the same walls, I questioned how a film that was biographical in nature, had a main promotional image that did not feature the main protagonist in a prominent position. There was no central image, and no, the obvious American flag theme did not move me. Having seen far more effective imagery associated with this film I had to ask myself – why this image? Opening weeks in the USA came with reports of the film being a “box office bomb”. Yet due to its success at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker was already in credit by the time B.O.A.N hit general release, making a reported $10 million in its opening weekend and finished 10th at the box office by the end of its first week [7]. Basically, rewriting the standard of what a “flop” actually is at the box office.

birth_of_a_nation_posterSteve McQueen’s Oscar winning  12 Years a Slave (2013) currently stands as the pinnacle of African enslavement film success since its release, and comparisons will undoubtedly abound. Harsh critics of B.O.A.N will miss the cinematic polish of 12 Years a Slave, but produced with nearly twice the budget and with probably less of the resistance 12 Years may not be an entirely fair beast to compare to. Though not perfect, B.O.A.N manages to achieve some significant things its contemporaries do not.

Firstly, there are no ‘White Saviours’ in B.O.A.N – not explicitly anyway. This may seem like a minor point, but the ubiquitous presence of such characters in practically every slavery film makes this one completely unique. Instead, Nate Parker does an excellent job of taking us through Nat Tuner’s personal journey from enslaved to rebel. He is nuanced, subtle, strong and vulnerable and through his journey as a preacher we learn of the motivation behind those who would eventually join him. All the major players are African. Master Sam Turner (Armie Hammer, Free Fire), threatens to pierce Nat’s black wall as he sways between ‘good’ and ‘tortured’ Slave Master. But ultimately, his tortured soul serves as a testimony to Nat Turner’s resolve as he is the very first to be put to the blade, by Nat Turner himself.

A key aspect of the film that may easily be overlooked, is the economic context. As stated by Christian Preacher Rev. Zalthall:

“I don’t gotta tell you times are tuff with the drought. It’s getting harder for the whites in this county to clothe and feed their niggers good. Talks of insurrection got folks scared.”

A sentiment repeated by another slave driver later in the film. The context for this, is that slavery was becoming a more costly enterprise. Slave rebellions were on the rise and a decade earlier, Denmark Vesey had put the fear of God into white America with a meticulously planned rebellion, sold out by an informer. But just his plans alone were enough to have the system of slavery on edge for years to follow. All this combined to force people like economist, Benjamin Lundy to write in 1831:

“We believe, from evidence which to us is conclusive, that the real interests of the slave-holder would to him be more secure, were he to change his slaves into hired freemen. That the expenses of free-labour are less, compared with its profits, than those of slave-labour.” [8]

In establishing the motivation that ties together the forces driving the slave drivers, B.O.A.N also achieves another feat that distinguishes it from its contemporaries. Most Slavery films tend to reduce the narrative to the personal story making the collective experience a casualty of the individual journey. The desire for freedom therefore becomes about the central character’s individual interests rather than the wider desire for the freedom of African people. Both, Django Unchained (2012) and 12 Years a Slave are key examples of this narrative.

Colman Domingo as 'Hark' and Nate Parker as 'Nat Turner' in Birth of a Nation

Colman Domingo as ‘Hark’ and Nate Parker as ‘Nat Turner’ in Birth of a Nation

B.O.A.N however, see’s Nat Turner, though undoubtedly affected by the experiences of those close to him, ultimately concerned with the brutality inflicted on his people; some of whom he only meets in passing on his preaching expeditions. Two scenes stand out as exemplary in this regard; the first being the initial war counsel that brought together the would-be revolutionaries. The question arises as to the dangers of initiating a rebellion, Nat implores his fellow warriors:

“Once it begins our brothers & sisters will join… We’ll start right here on Turners and fight our way there. By then we’ll number in the hundreds, thousands even. The grapevine is ablaze with talks of fighting. Slaves all over are having meetings. They waiting on something. They waiting on us.”

Another powerful scene, during the rebellion, Hark (Colman Domingo, Selma), Nat’s right hand man attempted to seek revenge on a slave driver for the rape of his wife, Esther, in the midst of a precarious situation that endangered the entire rebellion. No doubt Hark’s anger was justifiable, still Nat Tuner implored:

“This ain’t about revenge Hark. The root, not the branch. We must stay focused brother.”

To which Hark commands the Rebels to fall back, foregoing his personal agenda in order to preserve the revolution for another day. A powerful moment. This does bring me to a sticky point however.

Gabrielle Union as 'Esther' and Colman Domingo as Esther's husband 'Hark' in Birth of a Nation

Gabrielle Union as ‘Esther’ and Colman Domingo as Esther’s husband ‘Hark’ in Birth of a Nation

The roles of the women in the film. I have never seen Gabrielle Union so underused. Aunjanue Ellis never fails. Esther Scott and Naomi King all had powerful screen presence, but it did feel as though more should have been done with their brilliance. For example, though not much is known of Nancy & Bridget (Turner’s Mother & Grandmother), they are said to have been a powerful, motivating force in his life. As alluded in the opening scene his mother was an Akan traditionalist, believed to have been born and kidnapped from West Africa. Although Nat is said to have been a gifted child, much of his spiritual outlook was inspired by these two women. With the creative license used in many other areas of the film, it is difficult to figure out why these roles in particular, were reduced to moral support and words of encouragement. The opportunity for more effectual and robust portrayal was lost here.

At this point we must discuss the sensitive issue of rape. In B.O.A.N Nat and Hark are both torn to pieces after the rape of their wives by white slave drivers. There was a moment where it seemed the unchartered territory of sexual violence against black men (a pervasive yet under-discussed aspect of the enslavement experience) was going to be explored. Instead, we see Hark being called upon to give Esther over to one of Master Turner’s guests. A powerful scene; heart wrenching to say the least. The anguish and torment between Esther and Hark as they sought to comfort and support each other through the trauma was palpable. I am strongly convicted that we need narratives such as this to keep us in touch with these experiences even as we rid ourselves of the effects, people had to maintain families through this. However, I do believe that we must explore the over reliance on rape of black women in slavery narratives which fail to, on the other hand, portray the fighting spirit of those very same women, beyond the ability to withstand unspeakable brutality. There is a serious imbalance here that must be addressed.

Aside from the explicit portrayal of a traditional African ritual at the very beginning, the film does contain a few nods to Akan spirituality. Most notably in certain music choices such as Hark and Esther’s wedding song on the “Tree of Life” and then, Mama Bridget’s gravesite subtly portrays how African tradition was disguised with a veil of Christianity. Like many narratives, the over reliance of Christianity as THE motivating vehicle for thoughts of freedom is abundant in B.O.A.N. This is a double-edged sword. On one hand, the dramatic paradox of biblical interpretation is beautifully built up to crescendo when Nat finally challenges the white Reverend Zalthall (Mark Boone Junior, Sons of Anarchy) to a scriptural sound clash. It’s a tension you could feel building. On the other hand, the abundant African cultural retentions go severely understated in comparison. A fact which would have easily been resolved had Nancy or Bridget’s characters been afforded more agency.

nat_turner_preacher_birth_of_a_nation

There are a few facts and legends surrounding the Nat Turner narrative that would have provided Nate Parker and his team an abundance of creative direction as well as added countless dimension to this film. The primary vehicle for the reliance upon Christian doctrine is Nat Turner’s (fictional) preaching tour. Whilst many regard Nat to have been a preacher, there is no evidence to suggest that he was carried across plantations to “calm the slaves”. He was however, a fiercely spiritual man, some say a prophet whose destiny was inspired by the many visions he received and divinations he performed. For example, this quote taken from the Richmond Whig Newspaper, 1831:

 “General Nat was no preacher, but in his immediate neighbourhood, he was acquired the character of a prophet; like a Roman Sybil, he traced his divination in characters of blood, on leaves alone in the woods; he would arrange them in some conspicuous place, have a dream telling them to him, to whom he would interpret their meaning. Thus, by means of this nature, he acquired an immense influence, over such persons as he took into his confidence.” [9]

Another quote taken from the same publication:

“Tis true, that Nat has for some time, thought closely on this subject—for I have in my possession, some papers given up by his wife, under the lash—they are filled with hieroglyphical characters, conveying no definite meaning.” [9]

The “some time” referred to in the latter, alludes to the fact that Nat Turner took between 6-10 years to plan the rebellion. Having escaped from slavery he eluded capture for a month before returning to the plantation to map out and initiate the insurrection. These omissions from B.O.A.N have critical impact. In the Nat Turner we see charging towards the enemy quoting chapter and verse, we lose key elements for factual as well as creative exploration.

Finally, my most significant critique is for the very last scene. After a powerful 3rd act, featuring the explosive rebellion – which didn’t get enough screen time for my tastes, Jasper (Kai Norris, Forced Move) –  a young boy who eventually betrays the rebellion (also fictional), ends up watching the execution of Nat Turner live and in the flesh. As Nat smiles down on him with all the forgiveness of Christ himself, we see the camera focus on the boy’s eyes then zoom out to reveal him as a grown man, fighting the Union Army on behalf of the North, during the American Civil War. Unfortunately, this scene, especially as the final scene, lends itself to a narrative of the North under the leadership of Abraham Lincoln who, “freed the slaves”. The depiction of the plight of the North in the Civil War as a continuation of what Nat Turner was fighting for is problematic because it is false, and gives the impression of lending an implicit nod to a white saviour. Despite the sincerely held beliefs of those Africans who fought in his army, it should be remembered that good old Abe made his intentions clear: “My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery.” [10]

If decolonising history is to be a goal of today’s black filmmaker, a concerted effort should be made to continue to tear down these false idols, especially in a film on Nat Turner. In using the title, ‘Birth of a Nation’ we understand Parker is attempting to overturn the legacy of the 1915 original Birth of a Nation – one of the most derogatory films in history which signified the birth of Hollywood. The prevalent narratives of African resistance in the Americas are that we were all just fighting to become more American. That the ultimate goal of the fight was simply to reap the rewards of the land of freedom and democracy. That our greatest triumph lies not in the self-determined agency of African fighting for freedom on our own terms, but in our ability to don a uniform and fight under the banner of the stars and stripes. This narrative serves a purpose; it ensures that no matter what, the overall sanitised image of America is maintained and preserved before the world. That we still have some aspect of the American dream upon which we can invest our faith. Whilst this idea has no doubt endured, it is by no mean the only goal envisioned by Africans seeking to liberate themselves. The title, ‘Birth of a Nation’ may actually be a clue in defining what those other goals were. Some were fighting to build their own nations in a manner that Haiti did in 1804. In short, having invested much faith in Nat Turner and the sisters and brothers throughout the film; this was a disappointing ending for me.

Birth of a Nation is a must-see film. Despite its flaws, whether they be historical, political or cultural, the present day context makes it a defining moment in terms of how we develop black narratives on the big screen. Was it the slave rebellion epic many were expecting? No! But it is in many ways a step in a better direction. Critiques notwithstanding, I find greater productivity in acknowledging Birth of a Nation for the good that is in it, while using it as a springboard for further creation and a marker from which to improve.


Birth of a Nation is in UK cinemas now. Check your local cinema for listings.

Read TBB’s #OutOf100 review of Birth of a Nation here


References:

  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_World_War_II_films
  2. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Holocaust_films
  3. http://www.thebritishblacklist.com/shakara-speaks-it-time-film-enslaved-afrikans-fought-back/
  4. http://www.theroot.com/articles/politics/2011/08/nat_turner_rebellion_factchecking_his_confessions/2/
  5. http://www.natturnermovie.com/index.html
  6. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=atY6mW3qF8M&t=481s
  7. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Birth_of_a_Nation_(2016_film)
  8. http://www.natturnerproject.org/civitas
  9. http://www.natturnerproject.org/blank-ct2e
  10. http://www.abrahamlincolnonline.org/lincoln/speeches/greeley.htm