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.