I’ve had The Birth of a Nation‘s release on my calendar for quite some time now. I’m always eager to see major motion pictures based on historical events, and given BoaN‘s astounding reception at Sundance, I was looking forward to a landmark movie. But a few informed reviews convinced me to skip opening night. In fact, I’m starting to wonder if I should shell out money for a ticket at all.
The overall reviews are generally positive, but some historians of slavery and the black experience really, really dislike this movie. Dr. Leslie Alexander of Ohio State says filmmaker Nate Parker “failed miserably” in his attempt to put the story of the revolt on the screen (some spoilers below):
Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie—ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself—is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.
The movie’s depiction of black women especially troubles Alexander:
A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers—an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God.
As Alexander notes, sexual violence was an important (and salty understudied) component of racial oppression, both before and after slavery. But she argues that the gang rape plot device “is carefully constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense.” The movie “perpetuates destructive lies about black women. Enslaved women fought for their dignity and freedom, and they exercised agency over their lives, in spite of unimaginable horrors.”
Dr. Vanessa Holden of Michigan State also takes Parker to task for the film’s treatment of black women:
The male slave rebels who joined him could not have succeeded without the help of longstanding support networks embedded in community life. Black women, free and enslaved, were not solely the victims of brutality that inspired men to resist, as portrayed in the film. They were also active participants in and witnesses to an event that proved catastrophic for their community just as they participated in the everyday resistance of their communities.
Holden also has a warning for those interested in using the movie as a teaching tool:
The Birth of a Nation is not an excerptable, classroom-ready movie. A screening of Parker’s film is not the place to learn about antebellum Southampton County or the lives of the enslaved and free African Americans who lived and labored there. It is also not the place to learn about the slave rebellion produced by this community in late August 1831.
The film’s setting, she writes, “is not a historically accurate recreation of 1800s Southampton County, Virginia. Instead, it is the imaginary ‘every South’ that often provides a backdrop for narratives set in the ‘slavery times’ of the public imagination.”
All this is disappointing to hear. Between the plaudits from movie critics and the censures from historians, perhaps The Birth of a Nation is to antebellum slavery what The Patriot was to the American Revolution: a film that is entertaining and well-made, but not grounded in the history behind it. Since The Birth of a Nation features real people and purports to tell the true story of a neglected event, its historical sins might be more serious than those of The Patriot, where the plot revolved around fictional characters. Any filmmaker who claims that his motive is to bring a forgotten episode to public attention, I think, has a greater responsibility to the truth.
Regardless of whether The Birth of a Nation is the movie this story deserves, I think we’re living in a sort of golden age of black historical cinema. In just a few years, we’ve had 12 Years a Slave, Selma (which had its own historical issues, of course), the depiction of a violent and troubled Reconstruction in Free State of Jones, and now a Nat Turner film. In addition, the Black Lives Matter movement has prompted some interesting discussions about the historical context for current racial issues. Americans might not be talking about the history of race and slavery with accuracy, but one thing’s for sure: we’re taking about it more than we used to.