Guest Post: Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation (2016) in the Classroom

Today’s guest poster, Stephanie J. Richmond, is an Assistant Professor and coordinator of history programs at Norfolk State University in Norfolk, VA. She is a historian of gender and race in the Atlantic World. The following review contains spoilers and discussion of sexual assault.

the_birth_of_a_nation_2016_filmMany historians of race and slavery in early America were very excited when the wide release of Nate Parker’s new film on the Nat Turner rebellion was announced following its rave reviews at last year’s Sundance Film Festival. With the recent surge in Hollywood depictions of slavery (12 Years a Slave, WGN’s series Underground, and even Django Unchained), films have become an important part of teaching African American history. The best of these films and tv series give students an understanding of the psychological impact of slavery on both enslaved and free African Americans, illustrating many of the tactics of control and exploitation discussed in textbooks and classrooms. I had the opportunity to see the pre-release version of the film in April 2016 when Parker’s production company held screenings for HBCU faculty in several cities around the country. Several colleagues and I attended the screening and got our first glimpse at Parker’s version of a history that is both local and national. After the screening, production assistants recorded our reactions to the film, and took detailed notes on our critiques of the film both as a work of popular entertainment and its historical inaccuracies and misrepresentations, of which there were many. My own feelings on the film and its usefulness in the classroom are complicated and have changed significantly since my first viewing of the film in April. (In full disclosure, I have seen the film twice, both times at events put on by Parker’s production company).

Nat Turner’s rebellion is a particularly important historical moment for those of us who live and teach in southeastern Virginia. Southampton County is only an hour’s drive from Norfolk, many of my students come from Southampton County, and the descendants of the family who owned Turner now live in the neighboring city of Virginia Beach.1 Several churches in the area see Turner as a spiritual ancestor; the events of the rebellion are deeply ingrained in local culture. Turner is invoked frequently in conversations around police shootings, black-on-black violence, and black-on-white crime in the area. Parker’s personal connection to Turner is one that many of my students also feel, but Parker’s interpretation of the events and individuals involved in the rebellion and its aftermath is colored by local legend and the artistic license of earlier storytellers from Thomas R. Gray to William Styron.

My initial reaction to the film after seeing it in April was deeply ambivalent and has become more troubled over time. On the surface, the film is formulaic and has problems of setting, pacing and sense of time from the opening scenes. Instead of showing Turner living and working under the tall pines of eastern Virginia, the scenes of farms show trees dripping with Spanish moss (the movie was filmed in Georgia). However, the farms Turner visits to preach to are small, like those in Southampton County, with each farm worked by a handful of enslaved people, often all members of the same family. The enslaved people Turner preaches for are also held in a wide range of conditions, from brutally wretched to reasonably well-clothed and well-fed. Turner is forced to confront his own relative privilege on these tours of the countryside. The film does some things extremely well; most notably it succeeds in humanizing Nat Turner while still retaining some of the mystique of the spiritual leader that lingers in popular memory.

Turner’s role as a preacher in the black community of southeastern Virginia is key to understanding him as a historical actor, and that is well preserved in the film, as its Turner’s role within the household economy of his owner (the film homogenizes the various slaveholders who owned Turner into an emasculated alcoholic named Samuel Turner).[2] Parker deftly recreates the psychological quandary of a skilled enslaved worker: a man who knows his own value and leverages that value to create a life for himself and his family, but is still acutely aware that he and his wife could be torn apart or abused at the whim of another man. The depiction of Turner’s life and family is powerful, and is made more so by Parker’s decision to deviate from the historical record and make the brutal assault and rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry, the trigger for the rebellion. [3]

As powerful as the scene of Turner seeing Cherry’s terribly bruised face is in the film, the plot of Parker’s Birth of a Nation has a troubling connection to the actor-producer’s own life. As the fall semester opened and faculty began to think about how they could use the release of the film in their classes, national news erupted with the revelation of Nate Parker’s and screenwriter John alleged sexual assault of their Penn State classmate in 1999. Showing this film on a college campus will require thinking through the larger implications of not only showing a movie in which sexual assault is a major plot point, but also how pervasive sexual assault was both under slavery and in our society today. [4]

The larger problem with the film in relation to gender issues is not Parker’s actions but the female characters in the film, all of which are essential to the film’s emotional weight. Like the overall arch of the storyline, the female characters are all archetypal: the worrying mother, the wise grandmother, the angelic wife who must be protected, the kind but clueless plantation mistress. Turner’s wife becomes a symbol of Turner’s manhood and the ways in which slavery prevents him from enacting that manhood as he wishes. Unable to protect his wife, Turner turns to violence. The last act of the film panders to the audience, and provides some good lessons in how Hollywood rewrites history to tell the expected story. Turner, who in reality did very little killing, is at the forefront of the action in the massacre scenes. His band grows in size until they reach the fictitious Jerusalem armory which holds crates marked “Harper’s Ferry.” After the disastrous attack on the armory, Parker falls back on the imagery of the 1915 The Birth of a Nation, and the rebels and any others under suspicion are strung from the trees while Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit plays in the background. The action winds to a close when Turner, worried his wife might be harmed by those looking for him, walks into the town of Jerusalem and turns himself in. [5]

The question remains between the uneven portrayal of the events of Turner’s rebellion and the questions surrounding Parker’s handling of the surfacing of his rape charges, how can we use this film in the classroom or should we use this film? The film is certainly compelling to those who have not watched many of the recent Hollywood depictions of slavery, my students loved it. I, however, am not that convinced of its rhetorical power. I don’t think the film will replace 12 Years a Slave on my syllabus as a way to engage students with the conditions of slavery in the antebellum era. Clips and reviews of the piece will be included in the segment I teach on Nat Turner, which includes documentary titled Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property (2003) on the rebellion and the ways in which it has been appropriated by generations of activists and writers. Showing the film also should not be divorced from the discussion of sexual assault both under slavery and on college campuses in the modern era. The film offers many teaching opportunities and opens the door for important discussions on a variety of topics that need to happen on every college campus today.

_____________________

I am indebted to my colleagues at Norfolk State University who have discussed this film with me in many conversations since April 2016 and whose insights and reactions have shaped my review and reactions to the film.

[1] The Porter family, descendants of the Francis family of Southampton County, recently donated the Turner Bible to the new Smithsonian Museum of African American History, which opened in Washington, DC in September 2016. Vinson Cunningham, “Making a Home for Black History,” The New Yorker. August 29, 2016.

[2] For a detailed analysis of Turner’s role in the black community of Southampton County, see Anthony E. Kaye, “Neighborhoods and Nat Turner: The Making of a Slave Rebel and the Unmaking of a Slave Rebellion,” Journal of the Early Republic 27, no. 4 (2007): 705-720.

[3] Patrick H. Breen, The Land Shall Be Deluged in Blood: A New History of the Nat Turner Revolt (New York: Oxford University Press, 2015), 18, 85. Although there is no evidence that an assault on Turner’s wife was the event that spurred Turner to action, sexual assault of family members had a profound impact on enslaved men. See Thomas Foster, “The Sexual Abuse of Black Men under American Slavery,” Journal of the History of Sexuality 20, no. 3 (2011): 445-464.

[4] The actress who played Turner’s wife in the film, Gabrielle Union, is a rape survivor and has written op-eds detailing her own feelings over the news of Parker and Celestin’s involvement in an alleged assault and the film. See Gabrielle Union, “Birth of a Nation’ actress Gabrielle Union: I cannot take Nate Parker rape allegations lightly,” Los Angeles Times, September 2, 2016.

[5] In reality, Turner’s wife was beaten for refusing to divulge her husband’s whereabouts, and she did turn over some evidence, a list of conspirators, after being interrogated. Instead, Turner was spotted by another enslaved man while out of his hiding place in a cave on his owner’s farm, and a manhunt ensued. Turner surrendered to a man he knew and had done work for during the search. Breen, The Land Shall be Deluged in Blood, 34, 139-40.

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