A firestorm of controversy has swirled around Nate Parker and his film The Birth of a Nation in the two months since several media outlets revealed that Parker and his co-author, Jean McGianni Celestin, stood trial for raping a young woman in 1999. Across the country, social media lit up as people debated Parker’s guilt, questioned whether to boycott the film, and expressed outrage about violence against women. As the storm raged, however, one critical issue went ignored. No one questioned the fundamental value or quality of the film. Based on the standing ovations it received at the Sundance Film Festival, we assumed that The Birth of a Nation was inherently valuable, inspirational, educational, and transformative.
We were wrong.
The Birth of a Nation claims to tell the true story of Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in United States history. A film on Turner is long overdue, and as a professional historian of the black experience in the nineteenth century, I have anxiously awaited one. I was especially encouraged by September’s issue of Vanity Fair, in which Parker stated that he had become “obsessed with the idea of telling Nat Turner’s story” and that he sought to create “historical fidelity in his depiction of the leader of the rebellion.”
After attending an advance screening of the film, however, I now know that Parker failed miserably in his mission. 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.
Admittedly, historical accuracy probably matters more to me than to most people. And Parker was correct when he, somewhat flippantly, told journalist Anderson Cooper that “nothing is ever 100 percent historically accurate.” But how do we feel when the film contains only a smidgen of historical fact? And what if the historical inaccuracies are damaging and insidious?
Consider, for example, the film’s troubling depictions of black women. 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. In the months prior to the rebellion, he reported receiving a series of visions and messages from God predicting a cataclysmic “race war” that would destroy slavery, and by early 1831, Turner believed that God had selected him as the person to lead the revolt. According to the historical record, these were the only inspirations for Turner’s rebellion. This fact is important because it demonstrates that black people not only fought against slavery because of its extreme violence and brutality, but also because they knew in their hearts that slavery was an unjust, exploitative system that violated moral laws. In other words, they fought simply because they wanted to be free.
I absolutely do not want to deny the painful reality of the rape and sexual violence perpetrated against black women during slavery. Enslaved black women endured an endless onslaught of sexual violence, and there is even evidence to suggest that (rather than slave patrollers) Samuel Turner, Cherry and Nat’s second master, raped Cherry. So, then, why does it bother me that Parker and Celestin invented a false scenario about a brutal gang rape?
Like the film’s other fabrications about black women, the rape story line is carefully constructed to redeem black masculinity at black women’s expense. According to The Birth of a Nation, all of the women in Turner’s life were passive victims in desperate need of black male protection. This fabrication flies in the face of historical fact. There is overwhelming evidence that Turner’s mother fought valiantly against slavery, even attempting to commit infanticide when Nat was born to prevent him from being enslaved. Yet Parker and Celestin depicted her as a meek, mild victim who resigned herself to slavery. Cherry and her daughter are also portrayed as helpless victims who suffer unspeakable horrors until Turner rides in on his horse and vows to seek vengeance on their behalf. The only other major black female character in the film, who is brilliantly played by actress Gabrielle Union, does not speak a single word during the entire movie. She literally has no voice, and like all of the other black women in the film, she has no agency. Instead, like Cherry, she is a victim of a horrifying rape, which must be avenged by the black male heroes in her life.
I will let others speculate on the reasons why Parker and Celestin decided to fabricate a story line about rape—specifically gang rape—to spin a false tale about the motivation for Nat Turner’s rebellion. I will simply say that their story is not only untrue but it also 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. This is the story that deserves to be told, not one that disseminates archaic and damaging myths that cast black men as courageous saviors and black women as helpless victims.
Parker and Celestin’s portrayal of slavery is also shallow and superficial. At its core, The Birth of a Nation is a collection of every cliché image and story line from every movie you’ve ever seen about slavery: Slavery was bad. Black people were treated badly. Black people got whipped, tortured, raped, and killed. Black people fought back, but still got whipped, tortured, raped, and killed.
Of course slavery was horrific and brutal. But, personally, I don’t need to see any more images of black people getting brutalized. Every day, when I turn on the news, I see black folks being gunned down in the streets with wanton disregard, so I’ve seen enough. Perhaps Parker hopes that audiences will see the parallels between anti-black violence during slavery and anti-black violence in America’s communities today. If so, his strategy is detrimental. Repeated images of violence against black people are ultimately dangerous, not revelatory or enlightening, because they desensitize us to violence against black men, women, and children. Black people get reduced to tortured, brutalized victims—stripped of their humanity—and the brutality becomes normalized. Meanwhile, black people in the 21st century keep getting gunned down.
I am not suggesting that we should stop making movies about slavery. Americans still need to be educated about slavery, because there is a glaring silence about it in this country. It’s probably why most black people wanted (and still want) to see the film. On some deep level, we hope that films about slavery will be cathartic for us—that they will heal our psychological wounds, honor our ancestors, and force whites to face their racism. I understand that. But we will not find healing or redemption in The Birth of a Nation, because it does not live up to the hype.
It’s time for different messages in films about slavery—ones that depict slavery and the people who endured it in a holistic fashion. Black people were not just victims of a cruel and dehumanizing system. They were survivors who fought valiantly to retain their dignity, culture, and humanity despite their circumstances. We need movies that show how spirituality and African culture helped enslaved people survive unspeakable conditions. Ones that show enslaved people’s resiliency during slavery, particularly their ability to celebrate family and community, and even to find joy in the midst of pain and sorrow. Black people were not just brutalized “bodies”—they were dynamic, loving souls with a spirit and an indomitable will to survive.
Perhaps most importantly, we desperately need stories about rebellion to remind us that moral appeals and reform movements were not enough to end slavery. Slavery was an economic, political, and social institution with deep, powerful roots, and those who benefited from it were not going to let it go without a fight. Ultimately, we need a film to remind us that there were people who loved themselves and the black community enough to risk their lives to destroy a corrupt and oppressive system. These are the lessons I hoped that The Birth of a Nation would convey.
Is there anything redeeming about this film? Yes. But the benefits do not outweigh the negatives. The Birth of a Nation is a deeply problematic movie that misrepresents Turner and his rebellion, and sends insidious messages about slavery and the multifaceted roles of black women in the battle for freedom. Despite Parker’s bluster about Nat Turner’s heroism and his claims to historical accuracy, he failed to provide a truthful rendering of Nat Turner’s life, his rebellion, or the experience of black people during slavery. As a result, Parker and Jean Celestin pimped black suffering for financial gain and proved that they have no respect for black history or for the people who fought for our freedom.