Nate Parker, Nat Turner, and Nationalism(s): A Review of ‘Birth of A Nation’* by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

*See newly added addendum at the end.

“History’s potency is mighty. The oppressed need it for identity and inspiration; oppressors for justification, rationalization and legitimacy. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the history writing on the American Negro people.” – Herbert Aptheker in John Henrik Clarke (Ed.), William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond (1968), p. vii.

My son and I went to see Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation the night before it officially released here in Fresno. Keep in mind that such films—if they come to Fresno—only stay for a week or two, and by the time you plan to go see it they are long gone (see my piece on 12 Years a Slave). There were three people in the theater other than my son and I. This makes appreciating a film difficult because for the limited number of films that feature Black male leads, it’s best to experience it with an attentive crowd. It was later revealed that the film only earned $7 million its opening weekend (although we don’t know if this was due to Hurricane Matthew or Black Feminists’ protest).

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Fresno’s Manchester Cinemas 7pm showing of Birth of a Nation

Let’s put it up front, Parker centers Black men in this film. In fact, I think Parker is primarily speaking to Black men. Much like Pride (2012) and Red Tails (2012), these films have a distinct message to Black males, one of uplift through a brash, radical act of self-sacrifice in the interest of the Black community. My response? Good. I welcome it.

The film itself is quite jarring. From beatings to rape to the forced removal of teeth by a hammer and chisel as punishment for engaging in a food strike, Parker’s vision is arresting. Sadly, Black Feminist Nationalists have opposed seeing the film because of Nate Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin’s 1999 charge of rape against a White woman while attending Pennsylvania State University as student athletes (an interesting side note, I didn’t even know the woman involved was White based on the degree to which Black feminists used this incident to discuss how “Black men” assault “Black women,” presumably en masse). This was resolved in court and Parker was exonerated by an almost all-White jury and a White judge. This is uncanny, that is, being a Black male exonerated of rape and then being “re-accused” of rape in the court of public opinion 17 years after the incident. Understandably, according to The Hollywood Reporter, Parker “…was angry that what he saw as a consensual, youthful sexual experimentation gone awry had become an issue years later despite his acquittal…” and to me? Rightly so. Nevertheless, it has now become commonplace to consider both Parker and his film along the same lines as R. Kelly, Michael Jackson, and Bill Cosby—Black men perceived as sexual deviants regardless of whether or not they have actually been charged with a crime. In essence, Parker is being punished by Black Feminist Nationalists and they’re telling the media industry that centering Black men does not appeal to their interests.

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Nate Parker Shunned on Twitter for Interracial Marriage

Others argue that it wasn’t just that Parker and Celestin were accused of rape, but that Black Feminist Nationalists were offended that Parker married a White woman. Blogger Feathers Scott argues in  her piece, “Birth of A Nation’s Box Office Flop and The Unrepentant Pettiness of Black Feminists” that the Twitter posts of women who found Parker handsome and applause-worthy for making a Nat Turner film (something people have been trying for 60 years) quickly changed upon finding out his wife was White. She argues that this is the foremost underlining factor of Black Feminist angst at Parker’s epic labor of love.

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Nate Parker on 60 Minutes

Telling from the interview with Anderson Cooper, Parker is clearly uncomfortable with being perceived as anything other than a good husband, father, actor, and now writer/director, and rightly so. In fact, when asked if he owed the woman that accused him of rape (and by extension her family) an apology, his reaction was complicated and yet direct: I am sorry she went through what she went through, but no, I don’t owe them an apology. If you think him a rapist than you’ll no doubt see his response as escapist, but if you think him innocent, then you can imagine how frustrating it would be for someone to tell you to apologize to a woman (and her family) for something you were the victim of—especially in a country that has a legacy of killing Black men for the mere suggestion of sexual impropriety with White women.

Nevertheless, the film raised a number of highly symbolic moments, like when Parker’s Turner was beaten with a stick for returning a doll to a White woman’s child and speaking to her. This man, who at one point was accused of raping a White woman, plays an enslaved African beaten for daring to speak to one. Trust, the moment was not lost on me. Or the Black man dead at the side of the road with his brains blown out, reminiscent of what may have happened to his father, a man who escaped in the middle of the night only to never be heard from again simply for trying to provide his family with food. It was also reminiscent of Black men killed by the police because this man was no doubt killed by slave catchers in the film, the historical predecessors to our current police officers.

Another powerful scene was at a slave auction. Turner convinced his owner to purchase who would be his future wife, Madison (renamed by her White mistress “Cherry Ann;” note that I will call her “Madison” because that was what she was named by her mother, and she wasn’t renamed by her own volition). Upon being groped and manhandled on the auction block, she acquiesced, but once finally alone with no one but Black folk, namely Turner, she attacked him. This was powerfully symbolic to me. It was reminiscent of the Black feminist nationalists that used Parker’s prior rape conviction to recharge him with rape in the public square. It was reminiscent of how Black Feminists Nationalists attacked both Parker and the film outright, long before it came out! It was reminiscent of the feminists who upon hearing about the murder of Korryn Gaines, attacked Black men rather than the White cops that shot her. It was reminiscent of a rage rooted in seeing Black men defeated in a war that has lasted centuries, and despite that many of us are still fighting, we still represent to too many of our women who are trading us in for access to power and the middle-class one thing: FAILURE. Yet as with Madison and Nat, failure would only be what you see if you are not really paying attention. The quality of a Black man, Nat Turner’s story, or Parker’s contribution in general would be lost on you.

Leslie M. Alexander is a professor in the Department of African American and African Studies at The Ohio State University, and she penned a blistering hit piece on Parker’s Birth entitled, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ Is an Epic Fail” the day before the film was released. She asserts that Parker did a poor job envisioning the story of Turner and provided too many ahistorical excerpts that she argues ruins the integrity of Turner’s true story. She accuses Parker and Celestin of pimping Black suffering for financial gain and suggests they have no respect for the sacrifices of enslaved Africans who fought their oppression. Yet the truth is that there is little evidence regarding the details of Turner’s life, and much of what we know was a product of White voices speaking for Turner. In essence, the primary recording of Turner’s motivations was a White lawyer who was dubious about Turner to begin with, and such an interview documented what little we know. Alexander states, “The Birth of a Nation claims to tell the true story of Nat Turner,” but this is not so. Turner himself describes this as “based on a true story.” He doesn’t claim this to be a documentary (although he and National Geographic did create one to accompany the film shown on television the same week of the film’s release). In this sense the film is no different in content than 12 Years A Slave, Braveheart, or 300.

In regard to this issue of historical authenticity,  Dr. Ray Winbush, Research Professor and Director of the Institute for Urban Research at Morgan State University, observes:

“The most cited narrative about what happened on August 21, 1831 is that of Thomas Gray, commonly cited (though incorrectly) as Nat Turner’s lawyer during the trial. Here’s a brief history of Thomas Gray:

“Gray was a lawyer. Although he is commonly thought of as Nat Turner’s lawyer, James Strange French is the person listed in official records as Turner’s lawyer. Though educated in law early in life, he had only recently begun practicing law. There is some speculation that he had lost much of his property through gambling and that is what caused him to begin practicing law, which appears to be confirmed in a pamphlet Gray prepared discussing a dispute with a Southampton County physician. There is also recent speculation on Gray’s relationship with a well-known gambler in Virginia.

Gray published The Confessions of Nat Turner, which purports to be Turner’s confession and account of his life leading up the rebellion, as well as an account of Turner’s motives and actions during the rebellion.”

I doubt whether or not many of the critics of Parker’s film have read beyond Gray’s “Confessions” and even if they have, the majority of the narratives about Nat’s insurrection are written by white folks who use extensive speculation in their depictions of Nat. The most notorious of these, of course was William Styron’s 1968 novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner”, which was roundly condemned for its portrayal of Nat being primarily motivated for the insurrection by his insatiable desire to rape white women—an obsession with white people particularly white men. John Henrik Clarke and nine other writers responded to Styron’s smearing of Nat during the same year and his book, “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond”, is one of the few books written by Afrikans on the history of Nat Turner.

So exactly who are these critics of Nate Parker talking about when they talk about “accuracy?” The discredited lawyer, Thomas Gray? The alcoholic, William Styron? (I was actually in the audience in 1968 when Styron spoke at Harvard about his book on Nat and he came on stage drunk as a skunk).

The fact is, that few people know *accurately* what happened to Nat between early 1831 until he was brutally murdered by white supremacists on November 11, 1831. Nate Parker’s portrayal of Nat, though “inaccurate” in places provides just as good of an interpretation as white folks who have lied on Nat such as Styron.” (Facebook post on October 10, 2016)

Despite the historical complexity raised by Winbush, critics have doubted Turner’s true feelings for his wife, whether or not he actually had a child, whether he recognized that child as his own (i.e. cared about it), whether or not he loved his wife at all, whether or not his body was reduced to wheel axel grease, or whether or not he was inspired by God or by his wife being raped. Suffice it to say (on the last one), that it is likely that we’ll never really know—hence the need for dramatic license—what truly motivated Turner. I think it would be irresponsible to suggest that Turner was solely influenced by a vision from God on a random day, especially considered that he lived the entirety of his life (up to the revolt) as a slave. That said, why is it not acceptable that his life, what he witnessed, and what he experienced influence his reading of Bible? In other words, his exegetical posture likely came from both his experiences and a revelatory moment. Parker was not wrong to speculate on this, as his Turner often gave speeches at the behest of slave owners, and was taught to read by a White woman (in the film) who inundated him in a biblical eschatology rooted in subservience and obedience to White rule. (It is true that Turner was actually taught to read by his mother and father, but I understand why Parker changed this. Doing so is a vehicle for relating the role education plays in Black life, even today. Parker points to the power of indoctrination in education).

Other critics doubt Parker on a wider scale. Writers such as Aisha Harris, Lily Rothman, and Arianna Davis highlight the work of Assistant Professor Dr. Vanessa Holden of Michigan State University and her upcoming book on Black women of Southampton, Virginia, during the Nat Turner Rebellion era. In essence, they argue a few key points:

  • That the uprising should now exclude Turner’s name because it excludes acknowledging Black women’s everyday resistance to oppression,
  • That Parker commits the sin of patriarchy by excluding women from wielding weapons during the uprising,
  • That the shootout at Jerusalem never occurred,
  • That a Black woman held her mistress until the rebels could get there, and therefore Black women were directly involved in the rebellion,
  • The film just attempts to “work out” Black masculinity.

Briefly addressing and dismissing the last point first, uuumm…yeah…The Color Purple. What Black feminist angst wasn’t being flexed in that piece and many more since? Second, there was a shootout with militia in the woods, but Parker moved it for dramatic effect. Eh. In truth, over 3,000 military troops were called in to put this rebellion down, but again, I was not at a movie theater looking for a documentary, but rather a story that would inspire people to read more on their own.

Third, upon reading the interview conducted by Thomas Gray of Nat Turner just before his public hanging, he mentions little about Black women in the rebellion. In fact, he actually names the men that helped (“Henry, Hark, Nelson, and Sam”- Clarke, p. 104), but didn’t name any women. Does this mean that Turner, too, is a rampant patriarch bent on devaluing women? What of the Victorian standards of femininity of the day? Might they’ve played a significant role in how Black women behaved? We like to project today’s standards onto the past, and figures such as Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth become shorthand for all Black women, but in truth they were actually quite the exception. But why should this mean that Black women somehow lacked agency? Such superficial reviews rob Black women in history and Birth of a Nation of their due, oversimplifying the narrative and relegating dramatic storytelling to the realm of dishonesty rather than artistic creativity and truth-telling.

We know some women were killed in retribution for the rebellion, but slave-owners were not solely torturing people because they suspected them as having participated, they also tortured them to extract information from them. A relevant question to ask is why should this mean that these women were irrelevant and lacked agency, and why must we assume that to be Parker’s goal?

The fact is there is little evidence that Black women participated on terms that suit our contemporary wishes and sensibilities (i.e. the formal rebellion itself), but they did participate in everyday acts of resistance. Holden’s argument that a woman held her mistress for the rebels does not seem to suggest her direct involvement, but rather her overall support of it (although she was supplanted by another Black woman who freed her). The woman herself wasn’t traveling with the rebels and killing by her own hand. And even Holden herself acknowledges that Black women were likely not on battlefields when she states, “it makes sense if there really is this, like, battlefield somewhere, that maybe women aren’t there…,” and yes, there were “battlefields.”

Yet this doesn’t suggest that this should take anything away from enslaved African women. I’ve said this in previous blog posts and it relates to this very point: Black men and women simultaneously both subverted and reinforced the very Victorian gender values that subjugated us. Many Black women during Reconstruction wanted to be women who were catered to and provided for. They wanted to be protected and treated as special…they wanted to be middle-class…and many Black men wanted to provide that lifestyle, as they saw White men provide it for women* on plantations for generations. This had a powerful impact on how people conceptualized their gender contributions to daily life, resistance, and even outright rebellion against White supremacy.

(*Elizabeth Turner, plantation owner Sam Turner’s mother in the film, was not a victim in a gilded cage. She was an active and necessary part of White supremacy’s infrastructure. White women were the moral core of it and taught the values and attitudes in the home while doing much of the administrative work of plantation slavery. Black women sought to play a similar role—albeit without the oppressive elements…).

A List of Negroes Brought Before A Court in Southampton (Clarke, 1968, p. 118)

To be clear, I believe Black women have participated all kinds of things, resistance movements included, but I cringe at the often half-assed attempt to impose modern-day sensibilities on history–without evidence–simply because history doesn’t conform to popular Black Feminist ideology. Even the published list of those punished for Turner’s insurrection is strangely mono-gendered (see above). So let’s be real about something. If we’re going to parse Black gender contributions to liberation during slavery: Black men engaged in armed warfare more readily than Black women. And this is still true. From Ferguson to Texas, it’s usually Black men in armed warfare against cops whenever shots are fired. Women generally engage in protest (a reform gesture). This slights no one to acknowledge, but again, appreciating Black men has become synonymous with slighting Black women–and yet the opposite somehow isn’t true despite that both are logical fallacies.

Another critique Black Feminist Nationalists proffer is that the film problematically uses Madison’s rape as the impetus behind Turner’s rebellion. Ironically, Thomas Wentworth Higginson, colonel of the famous Black Civil War regiment, stated that Nat Turner really was motivated by a desire to protect his wife… But for Parker, this is actually not so. Parker’s Turner rebels after his wife’s rape, true, but he also rebels after his own beating for having baptized a White man despite what his slave-owners taught him about Christianity. He also rebels after the death of his grandmother, the woman that spent the entirety of her life sacrificing for everyone else while asking little for herself. More to the point, he rebels slowly, like a simmering pot that begins to boil after a lifetime of witnessing and experiencing the most brutal forms of abuse. Despite this, critics still argue that because the film did not focus enough on his revelatory moment where God tasked him to kill his “masters.” Instead, Parker treats this more as a process than as a moment, which I believe to be far more realistic. Even Thomas Gray notes about the real-life Turner, “It [the revolt] was not instigated by motives of revenge or sudden anger, but the results of long deliberation, and settled purpose of mind.” (Clarke (Ed.), 1968, p. 97 ) Yet Alexander argues that using a plot point such as Madison’s rape is historically inaccurate—but then admits that there is evidence to suggest that she was actually raped after all, just by Sam Turner and another slave-owner instead. Then, she argues that Black women such as Turner’s mother should be considered part of the uprising because of her attempted infanticide of Nat himself 31 years earlier…and that this would show Black women in a less “passive” light. (Please, just stop and as a good colleague of mine is wanton to say, “have several seats, ma’am.”)

There is an ironic catch-22 on representations of black manhood. In essence, if we allow the abuse of our women we are not protective, but if we defend them then we’re led by our egos (i.e. too macho), further implying that we don’t really care about our women but that we just can’t get passed our pride. Hence, Black feminist critics dismissed the film as a sort of Black masculine masturbation session, overlooking the complexity of what’s considered representationally “acceptable” in regard to Black men..

As far as the treatment of women in the film, Parker is accused of belittling women’s contributions to the rebellion. As soon as the film came out, Black Feminists Nationalists began responding to the film as they did with Straight Outta Compton last year–with disdain. Some felt that Gabrielle Union not speaking was a travesty. Some felt that Parker’s performance was wooden and lacked emotional expressiveness. Some argued that he inaccurately left women out of the rebellion. Others argued that he removed the women of all agency.

In contrast, I was moved by the representation of women in the film. I found it beautiful to see Turner’s awe of Madison’s beauty. A recognition and appreciation that contrasts the hypersexuality of today’s media. He was in awe of her–even at her worst! When he first sees her, he’s stunned while she was on the auction block. He even says, “Good Lord!” when she walks in during one of his sermons. Here, I thought Parker’s use of love and tender adoration highlighted the humanity of the people who lived in such circumstances and reminds us that enslaved Africans were human.

I originally thought that Gabrielle Union was under-utilized as an actress, until I read a review that listed her character as actually being “mute,” and that she and Parker decided that she should not speak. Nevertheless, much like Eddie Murphy’s turn in Dreamgirls as James “Thunder” Early, one look can do it. The scene where Union’s character had just been forced to give her body to a slave owner–without a word uttered–the look on her face alone was some of the best acting I’d ever seen her do. In all honesty, it paused my soul. Union was at her best, and seemed to invoke her ancestors to play that character.

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Mike Colter stars in Marvel’s Luke Cage on Netflix

Turner’s acceptance of Madison’s fevered anger is much like Luke Cage’s acceptance of Misty Knight’s rude treatment of him in Netflix’s newly released Luke Cage series. Cage represents an old idea rooted in Black male ‘John Henryism’ in regard to how Black men are supposed to interact with Black women and often absolves Black women of responsibility for their own words and actions. Nevertheless, this is considered a staple for an acceptable form of Black male behavior. It is in essence Black male stoicism and proposes that Black men should just remain quiet and be accepting in order to be considered “good men.” Turner does this and wins Madison’s hand in marriage (as Cage wins Misty’s respect), reinforcing that such John Henryism yields respect from Black women in reality, but as with Luke Cage, requires a bulletproof nature that many Black men are starting to question the value of, but I digress…

At every stage of his life until the rebellion, Turner’s grandmother, mother, and wife sacrificed to protect him. They did not lack agency. Instead, they were rooted in the behavioral standards of the day, while simultaneously subverting those standards in an effort to preserve the very humanity of the community. His grandmother and mother not only protected the whole family upon the father’s escape due to stealing food for his family (they hid the food while feigning subservience to a slave catcher), they served as midwives for pregnant women, stitched bull-whipped skin, conducted weddings, and oversaw the spiritual health of the community. Such actions ARE acts of everyday resistance. Furthermore, Madison protected Turner even while she laid in bed, barely conscious, preventing Turner from acting brashly to avenge her by quoting scripture. Such acts of resistance are dismissed as irrelevant because they were not acts that showed Black women bearing arms, yet ironically this belies the point of much Black feminist historiography over the last 3-4 decades. Historiography that proposed that there needed to be a wider framework for appreciating the breadth of Black women’s contributions to the prolonging of Black life during slavery.

On another note, I appreciated Turner’s inclusion of African cultural retentions, such as the ritual where he is recognized as a youth who would make a unique contribution. I appreciated the drum, the movement, the dance, the dress, the aesthetic use of cowry shells, African language, the vibrant ornamentation, and the Africanized cross on the grave of his grandmother. Such appreciation to detail was nourishing to me. And again, upon seeing him (in a dream sequence) stand and defend his boyhood self against a hooded avatar of whiteness incarnate gave my soul pause. Parker’s themes resonated with me, as he accurately called out the dubious form of Christianity slave-owners allowed their enslaved to “enjoy.” It was designed to instill obedience and quell resistance, although it became evident with Turner that reading would lead to new ideas and new interpretations of the faith that contradicted White supremacist indoctrination (and thus the inspiration behind the law that would ensue for the enslaved not to read).

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Nate Parker and Tony Espinosa as Nat Turner in Dream Sequence

Again, Parker was talking to Black men, and this era doing so is considered synonymous with misogyny. Yet this is inaccurate. To not be the center of discussion does not mean that one is devalued. As it is acceptable for Black women to have films where they are the center of discourse (see Taraji P. Henson’s Hidden Figures), so too should it be acceptable for Black men to speak to each other. (What? Were Black males completely irrelevant to NASA’s Katherine Johnson’s–Henson’s character–life?  The father that worked as a lumberman, a farmer, a handyman, and at a hotel? The husband that died of a brain tumor? Will they be honored or just footnotes to Johnson’s story, or worst yet monsters that tried to oppress her?)

Being a black man who never thought he’d see a film on the Nat Turner-led rebellion, I was most moved by seeing brothers-in-arms deciding to fight despite the prospect of death. It’s here that I think it crucial to say that Parker’s stoicism worked well, as it was far more likely that a reflective Turner would not only come to the realization of his role over time, but preaching to enslaved Africans enduring incredible atrocities such as being placed on leashes as children, being raped, or having their teeth removed during hunger strikes would have to be played stoically until the revolt. In fact, the one moment where you see Parker’s Turner begin to lose his composure was played perfectly. Preaching to a group of the enslaved (and later at a dinner) he begins to speak in a veiled yet passionate double-speak that directly resonates with them while obliviously dismissed by the plantation owners.

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Nate Parker as Nat Turner

Critics are overlooking more than a good film, they are overlooking Parker’s artistic vision. More to the point, they are denying him an artistic vision altogether. By limiting him to the trope of a modern-day Mandingo–a rapacious stereotype bent on raping white women–they deny that his choice to use Billie Holiday’s haunting song “Strange Fruit,” his decision to include African ritual ceremony, his decision to use dream sequences, to have Turner reflect in slow-motion on an enslaved Black girl being treated like an animal with a leash on her neck, and his decision to have a dark-skinned Black angel that receives him upon his death are each artistic tools used to convey layers of meaning, but when viewed through a lens of a dehumanizing stereotype they are re-interpreted as “lies” and “historical inaccuracies” rather than artistic ventures.

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Enslaved Girl with Leash On Her Neck

At the end of the day, what one must ask is not how entertaining the film was or how it suited one’s politics, but what work does the film do? Essentially, this film fills a part of us, a part we may not have known was missing. For me, watching Black men answer a late night call to plan a revolt and then actually show up as brothers-in-arms gave me chills. No. That’s not accurate. It steeled my heart. This is because seeing enslaved Africans resisting is important, as films and books about slavery have been used as propaganda to suggest that acquiescence was our primary mode of behavior. In reality, we fought on all levels, from feigning sick to burning crops to outright warfare. THIS was the reason slavery had to end, not White abolitionist guilt, and NOT President Abraham Lincoln. Slavery became too unwieldy due to constant resistance and had to give way to another system that better adapted to a larger geographic space.

I have only seen one other film that showed a successful plantation uprising (1977’s Roots’ minor “outsmarting” of local Whites not withstanding), Haile Gerima’s Sankofa. It isn’t accidental that both films are independently made, as Hollywood is still debating whether to consider Nat Turner a hero at all—mainly because his “victims” were also his oppressors.  Sadder still, Black people protesting the film are likely helping to diminish the likelihood that the film will be followed by others in its genre. A film on the Gullah Wars? Nope. The Stono Rebellion in South Carolina? Uh-huh. Haiti? Naa. Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Maria Stewart, or Phyllis Wheatley? Not likely.

We just told the industry that Tyler Perry’s Boo! A Madea Halloween is far more desirable…

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Tyler Perry as Madea in Upcoming Halloween Movie

*Addendum

A little over a week after the film’s release, the ONYX Black Male Collective at Fresno State (my students and I) took 15 people to see Parker’s Birth of a Nation. This being my third viewing, I focused more on the minutiae of the film and how it established Parker’s vision. Afterwards, a student said something that made me reflect. She said (as many have), she enjoyed the film but wanted the rebellion to last longer. In response, I asked her, “If you held a revolt today, who would you shoot?” Aside from some saying some cops…another quipped, “Trump,” no one could answer. I then said that this was not a “slavery” film as much as a “liberation” film. So when asked why the film didn’t spend more time on the rebellion, I said, “It did.”

Parker made this film in the era of Black Lives Matter. In some ways it is a meditation on what liberation means for Black folk today. Most of the film focused on education (Turner’s literacy vs. Black illiteracy), observation, reflection, dialogue, endurance, strategic planning, love, adoration, family, and mutual healing through tending to community. THAT is the business of liberation. The actual rebellion today takes place in many forms–even if only a conversation with the youth. That said, focus on the holistic aspect of liberation that is community, and don’t get lost in the 20 minutes (of the film) or 48 hours (in 1831) of the rebellion at the expense of the many aspects that constitute rebellion as a whole. Parker de-emphasizes the violence as if to say that if you are tending to the upliftment of the Black community, you are part of the rebellion. 

The problem with Dr. Holden’s assertion that we should remove Nat Turner’s name from the rebellion and emphasize the entirety of Southampton’s slaves’ everyday resistances is that it is STILL significant that enslaved Africans rose up–and like it or not Nat Turner was the impetus behind it. If they had succeeded, parts of Virginia might’ve become its own sovereign space like Haiti. The importance is that their revolution was a wholesale endeavor and did not end with merely the subtle, it included the brazen–-the willingness to transform their situation rather than to endure it with silent dignity. It emphasized the value of both, and this brazenness may or may not require violence today (although it did then). The violence need not be the focal point, action is…

It is in the completeness of Parker’s meditation on Turner’s rebellion that it stands out. It merges the Black feminine and Black masculine forms of leadership and sacrifice. The feminine adapts, the masculine transforms. In other words, the feminine is concerned with the integrity of the inner constitution, the masculine with the outer integrity of everyday existence. This is why the women in the film maintained the community’s spiritual integrity and humanity while the masculine picked up arms. This is why Parker’s Isaiah (Nat’s father) brings home food he stole to a hungry family while the women, who knew he’d have to leave, protected the family’s well-being (e.g. not giving the slave catchers any information or consoling a young Nat who misses his father). It isn’t to say men and women don’t contribute to both, but rather that each has a gendered purview in life. It is not an accident that the call to form rifle clubs was levied by Malcolm X, or that Robert F. Williams articulated a southern call for self-defense, or that the Deacons for Defense and Justice organized against the Klan, etc. These endeavors were mostly male, and yet figures such as Mabel Williams and Fannie Lou Hamer overtly participated. Yet still, undeniably so, the purview of armed rebellion is male. Even today when we think about Black armed resistance against police violence (even if one staunchly disagrees with it as a valid response), it’s mostly Black gang members in Los Angeles or Ferguson, or the likes of Gavin Long, or Micah Johnson, or even ex-cop Christopher Dorner that come to mind).

The only reason to argue this is because the role of the Black masculine and the misandry towards Black men stem from the fact that we weren’t successful in creating a sovereign context for our people and remain wholly unsuccessful in stemming off the myriad attacks that permeate our lives today (i.e. family absence, prison, unemployment, etc.). As such, the value of our contribution individually, in family, and nationally is stunted and thus deemed questionable. The actions of random Black men engaging in armed rebellion in the past or the last few years is seen as out of place, but this is mainly because we did not succeed. Think. How many question the need for an American Revolution against the British? Would it be different had it failed? Black male failure is why Turner is spat upon by a Black woman just before his execution (see Carr on Roland Martin regarding Birth) and Parker is spat upon now. In essence, it takes a mature and measured appreciation for the subtle victories and ongoing struggle Black men wage in the absence of large-scale, dramatic “wins” to appreciate the complexity of Black male life.

Nevertheless, in Southampton they attempted to transform all aspects of the lives of enslaved Africans in Southampton, Virginia. Total liberation. So the lesson we can learn today from it? Whatever you do, make sure your contribution involves doing something alongside internal meditation…something active to transform your environment and make it conform to a new vision of justice.

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4 thoughts on “Nate Parker, Nat Turner, and Nationalism(s): A Review of ‘Birth of A Nation’* by T. Hasan Johnson, Ph.D.

  1. Once again, an incredible analysis combining the historical, social and political themes related to Nate Parkers, “Birth of a Nation.” The consistency with which movies centered on illuminating, and cultivating the Black Male exigency for identity have been under attack since the career of Oscar Micheaux is astounding. Dr. Johnson’s examination of the film is an intellectually eclectic gift for those of us wanting to approach historical analysis with any level of depth. As is not the case too often, I was rewarded with the onscreen presence of men possessing humanity, as opposed to stereotypical portrayals. I honestly believe that Parker’s artistry smashes a hole in the wall of racial ignorance, providing an opening to begin honest discussions on class, gender, race and sexuality. Thank you for the article Dr. Johnson.

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