Nate Parker’s new film, The Birth of a Nation, is generating a lot of buzz. The actor best known for his roles in The Great Debaters, Red Tails, and Beyond the Lights, spent seven years making this adaptation of the Nat Turner slave rebellion: writing the script, raising funds, and directing. It premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week and was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. It has become one of the most anticipated films of the year and will certainly end up being one of the most talked about.
So much so that there’s already a backlash, before it has even been released. Kara Brown, at Jezebel, wrote: “I will certainly be buying a ticket to see The Birth of a Nation when it comes to theaters. But part of me is torn about sitting through yet another film that centers around the brutalization of black people. Frankly, I’m tired of slavery movies.”
My first reaction was: What slavery movies? In the past five years, there have been two major releases that have had American slavery at the center of the plot—Django Unchained and 12 Years a Slave—unless you count Lincoln, which managed to be a movie about abolition with very few speaking roles for black people. But that only gets us up to three. Before that, we had Amistad (1997), Glory (1989), Gone With the Wind (1939), and The Birth of a Nation (1915), America’s original blockbuster from where Parker’s film gets its name. So, again, what slave movies?
In sheer numbers, there aren’t that many, but Brown’s real argument isn’t about the number of films about slavery in existence. “I’m tired of watching black people go through some of the worst pain in human history for entertainment, and I’m tired of white audiences falling over themselves to praise a film that has the courage and honesty to tell such a brutal story,” she writes. “When movies about slavery or, more broadly, other types of violence against black people are the only types of films regularly deemed ‘important’ and ‘good’ by white people, you wonder if white audiences are only capable of lauding a story where black people are subservient.” Her objection has more to do with the pain of watching these depictions of slavery, knowing that it’s representing a real history of violence endured by people she and I call ancestors. The violence isn’t abstract or hypothetical, and it’s hard to feel entertained by that. And with the paucity of films featuring black people as lead actors (from 2011 to 2013, lead actors were 83 to 89 percent white), writers, or directors (only 5.8 percent of directors of the top-grossing films from 2007 to 2012 were black), it can feel like there aren’t many other stories being told, or at least not getting critical attention in the same way that films with black people’s pain as the main plot device are.