The author of this piece totally acknowledges that white privilege and supremacy can and do play a major role in the act of film criticism.
Nate Parker’s BIRTH OF A NATION is a profoundly difficult film to process. Trying to write about it with any sense of removal from it is foolish because it is, above all else, a piece of cinematic art generated not in order to represent just the Nat Turner rebellion but also the degradation of black manhood in the mainstream white supremacist media over the past eight years under the first African American president, the sometimes target and sometimes proponent of this degradation. Near the end of the film, Turner’s wife says that innocent blacks are getting killed across the county purely on account of the Turner rebellion having taken place. That is not just a statement about 1831, it is about 2016 and the death of black and brown people across America who are being killed still by cops who go unpunished.
Yet we must look to Parker’s own statements prior to when the news media broke the story about his past sexual experiences to see the heart of this matter clearly. He has told the press very openly that his favorite film is Mel Gibson’s BRAVEHEART. He hired as editor for BIRTH Steven Rosenblum, the cutter on the earlier film. Gibson himself gave Parker advice on filming and pacing. The film is loaded to the brim with shots that directly borrow from the 1995 film about the Scottish rebel William Wallace. At one point Parker said “This is our BRAVEHEART.”
And that is where a serious discussion needs to begin. I have a very substantial set of problems with BRAVEHEART, a film whose lines I can recite verbatim. As someone who is living with a Scotch last name, I know the level of damage that Mel Gibson’s borderline-fascist ultra-macho film did to me for years.
The sexual politics of BRAVEHEART were loaded with the prejudices and hatreds of Gibson’s medieval white supremacist Catholic Church ambience, a near-schismatic brand of Sunday worship that hated Vatican II, facilitated the ever-cozy relationship between the anti-Communist hierarchy and the CIA, and not just supported but fundraised for a barely-masked crusade against Latin American Liberation Theology. His William Wallace, who looks like he walked out of an Italian sword-and-sandals central casting office, at one point in the film makes a cuckold out of the Prince of Wales, a weak, pathetic, mean homosexual who has never been loved and never will be because he is gay. The message to me twenty years ago was clear, do not emote, bang and smash things when angered, and never admit to the plasticity of human attraction.
This is a deadly message to communicate to boys and men, a recipe for violence against women and self-mutilation in the name of a delusion of grandeur passed off as masculinity. I do not feel comfortable telling men of color what their ideal of manhood “should” be. But I do feel comfortable pointing out that the white supremacist film studios which have picked up this film are toying with some of the most profoundly dangerous notions of manhood known to scholars of black history. This is not intended as a condemnation of the behavior of Nat Turner as a historic personage, rather it is how it is mistakenly represented on film.
Gibson’s sexual politics seriously impact this film. Parker is not using the Nat Turner story just to create a slightly ahistorical myth, which would be one thing. Armond White, the brilliant New York-based African film critic who loathed 12 YEARS A SLAVE, has suggested that one of the best films made yet about slavery is the adaptation of Toni Morrison’s BELOVED starring Oprah Winfrey, a picture which uses mythic horror motifs and structures to communicate the terror of the plantation system. But Parker’s ahistoricism is rooted in a much more complicated motivation. The film’s multiple rape scenes, besides being not part of the historical record, are quite obviously at least in part his efforts to grapple with issues of consent and violence against women.
Dr. Leslie Alexander, Associate Professor in African American and African Studies at Ohio State University, said in a recent interview with Dr. Jared Ball “One of the big things that I have heard is ‘Why does this [historical accuracy] actually matter?’ And my point is it actually matters because people are walking around saying ‘Well, it tells our story! If it’s not telling Nat Turner’s story it’s telling our story of slavery.’ And my answer is ‘No, it actually isn’t! It’s not telling Nat Turner’s story, the only story it’s telling is Nate Parker’s story!’”
Spike Lee is guilty of a similar practice in his biography of Malcolm X, which turned Betty Shabazz, one of the most dynamic and important black women of her era, into a typical romantic interest for the male protagonist. Black women are all relegated to Mel Gibson-styled damsels in distress here. “To depict the story of black struggle against slavery as one in which women were always passive victims and men were always the rescuing heroes, that just isn’t the reality of the story and that’s not to say black men were never rescuing heroes, sometimes they were. But sometimes black women also stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their black brothers to fight for our liberation as well. As it turns out, in the case of Nat Turner’s rebellion, there is very little evidence to suggest that women took up arms in that particular rebellion, so I’m not suggesting he should have fabricated a story line of black women having done that in this case, although it’s obvious he [Parker] didn’t have a problem with fabrication,” says Dr. Alexander.
“What I am suggesting is that taking up arms was one way to fight against the institution of slavery and black women used a variety of methods. In some cases they took up arms but they also fought back against slavery in other ways and it would have been perfectly easy and I think totally appropriate to weave some of those story lines into it.”
There is also quite clearly, according to Dr. Alexander, an obvious touch of American exceptionalism in the underlying logic of the film. The picture ends with a witness to Turner’s public execution transforming into a Union soldier running into battle. While some might be inclined to see Turner’s religious preaching as a premonition of Liberation Theology, any sort of theology that concludes with praise to the United States is squarely within the camp of the Prosperity Gospel and its Calvinist orientation towards the notion of election.
The Prosperity Gospel was intentionally formulated in the face of Liberation Theology by imperialism as a counter to that trend’s preferential option for the poor, saying instead that monetary wealth was a manifestation of God’s love as opposed to a burden hindering salvation. Mel Gibson’s Catholicism is the closest one can get to the Prosperity Gospel without being excommunicated. Perhaps if Parker had transformed the youth into Obama instead this would be more clear to viewers. The core of Liberation Theology is anti-American empire and the Civil War was where the vanguard of capital from 1865-1915 was field trained for their later imperial excursions in Latin America and the Philippines. Lawrence Ware and Paul Buhle’s recent excellent article on C.L.R James bears quoting here:
On any given Sunday, a version of the prosperity gospel is preached from hundreds of black pulpits. This mishandling of the gospel keeps many black Christians from thinking productively about communal social liberation… Black churches must eschew the notions of evangelism emphasized by white Southern Baptists and see work in the community addressing social sins as an embodiment of social evangelism. Individualist spirituality will not liberate us from social oppression—the church must do that work by advocating for policy and protesting in the streets.
Is one of these pulpits the one Nate Parker sits in front of on a weekly basis? I’m not capable of discerning this but it does seem quite tenable.
In this sense I would hold the Nat Turner rebellion, as it is shown on screen, against the notion of spontaneity that C.L.R. James espoused and the vanguard party notion embraced by his contemporary W.E.B. Du Bois. Both men wrote within three years of each other their classic studies of slavery and rebellion, Black Jacobins and Black Reconstruction. Granted, these works came long before both men evolved to the point where they most clearly articulated their views, James in his 1956 essay Every Cook Can Govern and Du Bois in his 1961 letter attached to his application to join the American Communist Party, but it is worth considering.
James argued in Every Cook that “At its best, in the city state of Athens, the public assembly of all the citizens made all important decisions on such questions as peace or war… They organized the administration of the state, appointed officials and kept check on them. The public assembly of all the citizens was the government… And this form of government is the government under which flourished the greatest civilization the world has ever known.”
Du Bois wrote “Communism, the effort to give all men what they need and to ask of each the best they can contribute this, is the only way of human life. It is a difficult and hard end to reach it has and will make mistakes, but today it marches triumphantly on in education and science, in home and food, with increased freedom of thought and deliverance from dogma. In the end communism will triumph.”
It is quite obvious to any Marxist film critic that Parker intends this film to be an antithesis to the first epic film ever, the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent picture that makes the Ku Klux Klan glorious heroes and black men villains. However, the problem he did not grapple with properly is how deeply indebted to Griffiths’ chauvinism Mel Gibson was when he made BRAVEHEART. In this sense, he did not create an antithesis, just a remake. It was Oscar Micheaux, the author, director, and independent film producer, who tread similar ground in the 1920 WITHIN OUR GATES. That picture restaged scenes from the first BIRTH OF A NATION where violent white men were now preying on black women, a total antithesis of Griffith. But despite all those efforts, Micheaux was a lifelong disciple of not Du Bois but Booker T. Washington, dedicating a novel to the accommodationist founder of the Tuskegee Institute and target of Du Bois’ public criticism. The lesson from Micheaux is obvious, it is fundamentally impossible to create a proper slave narrative using the deeply ingrained white supremacist motifs and narrative devices that the realistic epic film provides. Instead, following Armond White, it is necessary to utilize a different set of forms and conventions, such as those provided by fantasy and horror, to do true justice to the societal act of genocide. Perhaps one of the more famous examples besides the Morrison novel is the 1979 Octavia Butler time travel narrative Kindred.
Stanley Kubrick understood this all too well. He was deeply impressed by Raul Hilberg’s 1961 magnum opus The Destruction of the European Jews, considered the gold standard of scholarship on another genocide. Kubrick spent decades trying to formulate a screenplay for a film titled THE ARYAN PAPERS before giving up in despair. The closest he ever got was through the analogy and visual clues placed throughout his haunting adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining.
On one level, it is a ghost story. But across the screen time and again are mechanized elevators that shed gallons of blood, just as the cattle cars to Auschwitz did. The insane patriarch, driven mad by the chauvinist ghosts of a post-World War I bourgeoisie that laid the ground for the election of Hitler, writes his manuscript on a Nazi-era German typewriter with a perched eagle that would fit atop a swastika sitting beside his ashtray and coffee. He throws a racket ball continuously against walls decorated with American Indian motifs, a bare assault upon the indigenous heritage of this country, and the Overlook Hotel he is the caretaker of was, in a fashion quite similar to the construction workers who are building the DAPL pipeline, constructed upon a desecrated Indian burial ground. Kubrick was not impressed by his friend Steven Spielberg’s ultra-realistic rendering of the Nazi holocaust, rather famously quipping “Think [SCHINDLER’S LIST] was about the Holocaust?… That was about success, wasn’t it? The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. SCHINDLER’S LIST is about 600 who don’t.”
The obvious lesson is that realism, in trying to do justice to history on screen, is simply the ultimate injustice to genocide because it cannot possibly render on celluloid the scale and depth of the depravity while earning an R rating. A film maker cannot be realistic enough in this instance.
The press has slammed this movie from the outset by reviving old accusations against Nate Parker for sexual assault. He has had to essentially prove again and again that he is legally innocent of this allegation. And so the entire edifice of white mainstream press reviews of this film are so obviously constructed around such a narrative that did not exist several years ago when the actor was performing in RED TAILS. And that is truly the problematic issue, that the press was fine with this not being talked about when he was just playing a pilot. To mangle the parlance, apparently it isn’t rape when you play a service member but it is when you play Nat Turner. That casual manipulation by the press of the meaning of victimhood is the site of the true racism here. It’s not an issue of whether or not Nate Parker did it, it is that the press was silent as long as he dared not be rebellious and that they are so sanctimonious about it.
The Nat Turner rebellion, properly represented, is the middle episode of a trilogy of black revolution bookended by Black Jacobins and Black Reconstruction. On the one hand, the “Black Workers” (Du Bois’ phrasing for slaves and, after the war, freedmen) were spontaneous in their formation of rebellions before the Civil War and were organizing from meager resources in the ravaged landscape of the postwar South in a fashion equivalent to what James described in Every Cook. On the other hand, the preparation necessary to begin a proper slave rebellion, which Parker does demonstrate with some skill, is the definition of a vanguard’s creation.
And this is where the lessons of the film can actually be found. Parker’s film should not be seen as an instruction on individual identity. Instead, it should be seen as a synthesis of James and Du Bois. The one of the challenges for the generation that has risen up in this century under the heading of Black Lives Matter/Movement for Black Lives is a further synthesis of Du Bois and James in their praxis. The challenges of their forebears in the Black Power movement are an important critique of Du Bois’ vanguard. The failings of their temporal if not traditional predecessors in Occupy are the critique of James’s spontaneity. In this sense, BIRTH OF A NATION is an extremely vital film despite all its failings.