Rebirth of a Nation Within a Nation / Jared Ball
“We are a nation within a nation…” – Martin Delaney
I was happily involved in this panel after a screening of Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation today at the Library of Congress. Even with the unfortunate loss of the last 10 minutes of the panel it was a lively and important conversation.
Though I enjoyed seeing the film screened for us more like we were in a friend’s apartment with a quality bootleg and despite the concerns i have with the film, summarized below and in the above video, I will support it and see Birth… with friends and family in a theater, paying full freight. I have no truck with Nate Parker (for making this film) but my gesture is for the sake of Nat Turner and the struggle or tradition he represents, the symbol. So I will make the pathetically soft and contradictory symbolic gesture of adding to first weekend box office totals, the only ones that matter and determine the length of the film’s run in theaters. But as I responded to the first question asked by our panel’s moderator Diem Jones, who instructed us to keep it to literally 5 words, “this is not our film.”
I really like Nate Parker as an actor. Even in the films Im not thrilled with. I am impressed by his desire and effort to make this film. Aja Naomi King is brilliant, delightful and powerful. I love that the film does, in the final on-screen words, acknowledge that we are talking about enslaved Africans and that Turner targeted only families involved directly in the enslavement process and business. And I love that neither the imprints on Turner of Thomas Gray or William Styron are recognizable.
However, the film remains media industry product. It was welcomed for financing and promotion at Sundance because, even as a film “about” Nat Turner, it must satisfy a White, affluent sensibilities if it is to hit thousands of screens and have a promotional budget or be considered for industry recognition and awards. And the film does this to the extent that it depicts Turner’s action as largely an isolated event given impetus only by his Christianity as opposed to, for instance, David Walker or the countless other forms of insurrection which are only whispered about passingly and vaguely by Whites seen on screen discussing the use of Turner’s preaching as an anti-rebellion mollifier. And despite what I think many are expecting, the overwhelming bulk of on-screen violence suffered is by African people, not Whites. So, again, in that sense, Birth… breaks with no norms of cinematic traditions regarding the topic of African enslavement. The film’s end is also a nod to industry needs and White sensibilities.
The transformation in the final scene of the young African boy, who we are shown previously making a last minute switch to snitch on Turner, growing into a man marching as part of the Black Union Army troops fighting the Confederacy, American flag waving behind him, is the conclusion Sundance needed. I read this as the film’s attempt to refasten Turner’s legacy to the American myth as opposed what seems more appropriate; the multitudes of African and colonized people struggling then and now against the imperialism or violence committed in the name of that flag. Turner’s father was a maroon who escaped back to Africa. A montage that included Martin Delaney, Marcus Garvey and Claudia Jones would have been more appropriate. Or why not John Brown? Right, wrong White folks. That would mean also a more appropriate title: Re/Birth of a Nation Within a Nation.
I suspect the real target for that final scene are those struggling right now with the tyranny symbolized by the stars and stripes, those in prisons, the streets, unemployment offices and depressed housing or schools. The same media that now promote this film have said nothing about the largest prison strike taking place right now where ItsGoingDown. Fox Searchlight Films, the same folks who brought us 12 Years a Slave and a Selma absent of Ella Baker, Stokely Carmichael and James Forman, and part of the Rupert Murdoch media empire, is now looking to shape what the young and potential future Turners might think about rebellion. And not one of that empire’s properties, including the New York Post and Wall Street Journal, have or will offer any assistance to or support for Turner’s political descendants still looking to finish his work. That empire saw no contradiction in picking up Parker’s film for distribution for it attempts to address itself to the increasing numbers of people who are looking at the prison industrial complex as contemporary enslavement and need a film about Nat Turner that will redirect them back to the state; as if the American flag is any less guilty of slavery than the Confederate.
No, this film is not giving us the Turner of Gray or Styron. However, I do think its intent, from the perspective of those who are funding, distributing and promoting their product, is similar to what John Oliver Killens said of Styron’s Turner, that the welcoming of Styron’s Turner by Whites was connected to his relegation of Turner – and the idea of uprising – to only that time, that particular moment. Writing in the late 60’s about African rebellion could only play if not seen as supporting the rebelliousness of the day. And this film, Parker’s, I think is being welcomed for largely the same reasons. Keeping focus on only Turner’s moment, making no reference to any other, assuring that the requisite amount of Black suffering remains – far more than that of Whites – and then ending the story as an “American” one further promoting the equally harmful mythology of a war being fought to free the enslaved, all conspire to make the film testify against those now in the streets.
Finally, in the portion of the above panel that was not recorded I did also try to make the point that another of enslavement’s tropes that went unbroken in this film, one admittedly personal, is that old and tired one about there being this clear divide between light-skinned “house slaves” and dark-skinned “field slaves,” with, of course, the former being weak and treacherous. The horrors suffered by those in the house, – who were not always so easily divided along this color line – or that they were often conspiring with those in the fields (who were often also their family) and the various forms of resistance in which they engaged is omitted and sloppily glossed over with the character played by Roger Guenveur Smith. A darker berry may indeed be sweeter but it is absolutely no guarantee of commitment to revolution.
Of course, we don’t have to take from the film what its promoters hope we will. If the film inspires more support for our political prisoners, who are our living Nathaniel/Natalie Turners, we can claim a modicum of success. If the film inspires a deeper appreciation and support for those among us who take up arms (even if we don’t or are scared to admit we agree); advance. If the film does what many claim these films do or will do, inspire deeper study of Turner and the countless other histories of rebellion; Ashe. Parker is clearly looking to redefine this nation’s myth of origin away from D.W. Griffith‘s 1915 original. That film, as it was noted during our panel, is being shown in the main cinema of the Library of Congress (as opposed to the small conference room and two flat screens we used for Parker’s) and begs for a redefining (if not erasure). But Parker’s film feels too much like an apology for the North, the Union, the State, under whose flag many people are suffering and against which many good people are struggling.
I started by saying it is not our film. But it can be.