By Michael Harriot
I believe Nate Parker is a rapist.
I needed to say that so the 5,000-pound pachyderm can leave and give us enough room to unpack Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation.
Even as I type this, I want to argue that I am not bound by binary thinking. I want to tell you that I believe Bill Cosby is a serial rapist and one of the funniest human beings who ever lived. I want to tell you that R. Kelly is a pedophile and Ignition Remix would make Jesus Christ cut a two step. Two things can be true at once. I want to tell you that I am intelligent enough to have two simultaneous thoughts. I want to believe that I can evaluate a movie without having my opinion shaded by the backstory of the writer/ director, but I don’t know if it is true.
I saw Birth of a Nation a few minutes ago, and it is dripping with the arrogant, misogynistic maleness that subjugates women and has defined Nate Parker in recent interviews. It is too violent. It is made for men. It is too rapey.
I saw Birth of a Nation a few minutes ago and it is one of the grittiest, most beautifully told, heart-wrenching stories ever shown on a movie screen. It is at once loud and muted. It chokes you up. It puts a forearm to your throat. It stands in your face and stares at you nose to nose. It sits back and whispers in your ear. It is a beautiful masterpiece of filmmaking. Most of all it is a movie rich in complex, parallel dualities, that both compliment and negate each other at different times.
You shouldn’t attend Birth of a Nation expecting it to exist in the lineage of Roots, Glory and 12 Years a Slave. Even though it is a film about slaves, set largely on slave plantations about a slave revolt, this is not a slave movie. There are no white saviors nor are there scenes that balance the brutality of chattel slavery with the Universal love for all mankind. The previously mentioned films stood back and showed the objective horrors of slavery in the construct of a barbarous system foisted upon characters we cared about. These movies cast the institution as evil, and slaves as unlucky victims.
Birth of a Nation is different. It made no overt judgement about the institution, it told the story of a man existing inside a reality that just was. Instead of creating a narrative that slavery was evil, Nate Parker literally and figuratively zoomed in on what made the slavery so harsh and untenable:
In the film, there was no objective philosophic rumination about the inhumanity of the disease of human ownership. There wasn’t even a discussion of liberation or liberty. In this reality, White people owned and controlled Black people, and White people were inhumane. In this flat-world context, emancipation or escape was never a thought. Even in discussing the details of his plan for uprising, freedom was never an end goal. Nat Turner believed in divine justice, and he slowly came to see the only justice was repaying the oppressors for their evil.
The value of the film lies in the fact that he did not reduce the Whites in the film to archetypes, nor did he make all the slaves heroic. They were both sympathetic and brutal. They were both protectors and punishers. Slavemasters taught him how to read and prevented him from gaining too much knowledge. Black men were ultimately responsible for his undoing. White men were vicious rapists. White men were comedic lushes. White men gave Nat Turner a loving wife. White men raped his loving wife.
Therein lies the main fault of the movie. As Parker used every scene in the film to successfully prosecute a case for why machetes and hatchets to Caucasian foreheads seemed a reasonable solution, the women in the movie were either two-dimensional props or collateral damage. His mother was just simply around, making perfunctory appearances whenever the main character needed a dose of frailty. The role of grandmother could have been written by a 10th grade drama student, and his wife was only fractionally more knowable. She wasn’t quite 3 dimensional, she was more like 2.694-dimensional.
And then there were the rape scenes.
To be fair, it is impossible to say if the scenes would have been as noticeable if I had not known about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, but the rape scenes were shoehorned in. Even worse, they neither added to the plot or seemed necessary. They weren’t even used to show the brutality of the antagonists (there were more than enough instances of White savagery without them) or the plight of the female slaves. Instead, the sexual assaults were only cinematic devices to highlight the helplessness of their male protectors. The women were all expendable, and–when coupled with the violence and visual cruelty–made Birth of a Nation an exhibit in the exercise of maleness. I can’t be sure if Nate Parker’s re narrative sullied the story and highlighted this point, but I couldn’t help but notice.
However, this flick was not about the ancillary characters. It wasn’t even about retaliation vengeance. It was about rebellion–not against a system of bondage or the concept of slavery–but against the institution of religion. Perhaps this was the only overarching, overt theme of the movie–that religion was given to slaves to subdue and condition them to the inhumanity of captivity. The Bible was the means of the biggest duality of the film. Christianity was a tool for enslavement. It was an opiate for masters to keep their property sedated and compliant. But it was also a source of hope and faith that made the deep brutality of slavery tolerable. Ultimately the slavemaster’s sedative became his undoing.
This is the lesson of Birth of a Nation. It is a movie of complex dualism that fights with both itself and the controversy surrounding it. However you feel about the movie’s missteps, both internally and externally, ultimately the film is too big, too important and too beautifully made to be constrained by its flaws. If consumed en masse it has the ability to change the collective consciousness. It is not just the story that is important. While every other “slave film” focuses on the faith and quiet strength of Black people as they endure pain and torture, Birth seems realer because it takes the bottled-up, seething anger that had to have existed alongside the determination, desperation and fear, and shakes it up. Then it shows what happens when it explodes. In this context, the mass murder of slaveholders seems more logical a conclusion than the usual endings that excuse both slavemasters, history and institutions.
Do not believe bad reviews of this movie.
I cry at a lot of movies, and not usually just the sad ones. I am moved by the spectacle of art, and by the achievement of artists. Birth of a Nation immerses the viewer in a universe so real and so Black it is almost unfathomable to imagine anyone outside of Blackness actually understanding it. The way he used ashy faces, chapped lips and “the whitemouth” to show the conditions of slaves. The subtle anger oozing underneath every scene that had nothing to do with the movie, or slavery but Blackness. How they treat you at your job. How they look at you when you aren’t where you are “supposed to be.” He translates that anger and transfers it to the watcher.
As soon as the ending credits started to roll, I bolted from the theater to compose myself in the bathroom, hoping no one would come in and hear me openly weeping. That’s how powerful this movie was. Anyone who knows the story of Nat Turner knows how the movie ends. But the ending was not sad. In fact, like the intricate two-sidedness of the film, it was triumphant. Like Black people. Like us. Like even though every evil thing a human mind can think of has been repeatedly done to our people, they cannot squash our determination. They cannot quell our pride. It does not embrace you at the end and sing Kumbaya. It wipes the sweat from its forehead, stares the world in its eyes and whispers “Try again, motherfucker.”
That ain’t no slave movie.