This week I participated in an advanced screening of the much anticipated film, Birth of a Nation (2016). The invite reached me as a member of the Homebrewed Christianity community where I am a loyal podcast supporter. The film's production company is offering a plethora of advanced screenings seeking to appeal to the faith community.
Prior to receiving the invitation I had just recently decided that I would not monetarily support this film as a result of the 1999 sexual-assault case against film star and director Nate Parker, and his co-writer Jean Celestin . I reached this decision after reading up on the case in what was perhaps too much detail, reviewing portions of the court transcripts, and hearing from Nate Parker himself in interviews. Someone, please tell him, he desperately needs a new publicist.
Before I wrestled with the question of separating the art, from the artist, I already questioned whether or not this was a film that I wanted to see, on its own merit. See, I am in the number of Black folks who are pastttt tired of feature films portraying the centuries of our bodies being beaten, raped and slain in the name of white supremacy. Particularly, with current affairs as they are, I would love for filmmakers and artists to draw from a different narrative. I encourage us to be more imaginative and to research and tell the stories that are sadly much less likely to be told. These are the stories that will reveal unknown, perhaps even unexpected truths. These untold stories have the ability to inspire and empower us during these troubling times.
So let's talk about the film itself.
Birth of a Nation was an above average film, in some moments it was even better than that. There was beauty, quality cinematography, and brilliant acting all present. The religious and spiritual undertones were significant to the storytelling. Though it was based on the true story of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion, Parker certainly generously took up creative license with the story-line.
Sidenote: I learned Parker sought out Mel Gibson to consult on the film. (Yep, let the irony of that sink in). Gibson's contributions were visible in some of the pacing and imagery of the film. If you squinted, you may have found yourself in a Braveheart scene.
My reading on the film was that it was both unnecessarily violent and unnecessarily sanitized. I grew up watching horror movies as a kid, so I've never been described as squeamish but both my sister and I found ourselves covering our eyes at different portions of the film. Most of my time in the theater was endured by me squirming in the large red recliner seat, and breathing so audibly deeply throughout that I mirrored what you might hear at a Lamaze class. Other portions of the film, seemed to romanticize the violence itself and felt self-righteous. I would say more, but I promised no spoilers here.
Birth of a Nation, offers up some theological questions. Parker forces us to hold both religion and violence. The God of love, and the God of wrath. Where was God, during slavery? Where is He now?
In addition to the historical story, there is a line in the film where Parker clearly invokes our current cries as Black Americans within the context of our #BLM movement and the war on Black lives.
What the film offered in some ways, was the striking unveiling of how Black folks have long suffered at the hands of White Supremacy, capitalism, patriarchy, etc. but have not lost their joy.
When faced with the bleakest of circumstances (i.e. slavery, police brutality, inequitable access to education, etc etc), Black folks have kept their joy. Such power is present when considering the strength of a people to worship God and magnify his Glory, all the while being faced with no empirical evidence that He is good.
Overall I found watching the film to be physiologically and spiritually taxing and I have no doubt it will certainly be triggering for some. It's a film I put in a category of "one and done." I cannot imagine myself watching it again, it was in total, too unsettling and painful. The sadness and discomfort I felt did not simply come from the film itself but from the irony and reality of the controversy Parker is facing, and the unfortunate and saddening loss of a woman's life.
For those of you reading who would like to see the film, I offer up one key recommendation:
Watch and debrief the film within a diverse community.
This is not a film you should watch in isolation. I would only recommend you see this film, if you participate in critical reflection and discourse among others. I was grateful enough to enjoy a Chocolate Stout and sit for three hours with an ethnically diverse group peeling through the various layers of the film and the rhetoric associated with it. Without that time together, I would have easily simply left the theater disturbed and frustrated. The fruitful discussion afterward was in my opinion, much more impactful, more than the film itself.
As for Nate Parker, I'm still not here for him.
I've decided that if I'm for justice, I'm for justice. This means that I have to name injustices when I see them, even at the risk of stirring up Black male fragility. With that said, I do believe the Nat Turner story is one of importance. How important? Important enough for you to dust off your library card and get a more fruitful and through account of the rebellion and its implications.