All I know is the film exists. You can kill the messenger, you can come for me, it’s alright. Nat Turner lives and hopefully there’s something to be gained for generations to come. – Nate Parker
Nate Parker‘s much-hyped Nat Turner biopic Birth Of A Nation opens nationwide Friday, and it’s still unclear how audiences will receive the film. Whether or not it goes on to box office success or Oscars glory, it will definitely go down in history because of Parker’s own dramatic past with America’s warped racial and sexual realities.
Rather than an unwanted distraction, Parker’s acquittal from a 1999 rape case has become an essential part of all discussions about the film, because themes of injustice, atonement, and race apply to both. In fact, Parker’s own words about his hopes for the film is the very thing those who plan to boycott want from him:
“If you’re being handed down certain ideas, behaviors, that you don’t understand and you’re just falling in the line because you’re being told that this is the way to do it, and those are based on something systemic from hundreds of years ago, then it’s up to us, as citizens, police being citizens as well, to address these things in a way that we can break cycles.”
It’s hard to read the details of Parker’s case and not have some misgivings about his past decisions, but after seeing the film last week, I have to personally recommend it to everyone, of all ages, genders and races. Parker doesn’t have to be your neo-Denzel or Black Hollywood’s savior, but he did research, write, produce and star in one of the most important films of the decade. And it’s worth the hype.
Birth Of A Nation is an incredible re-telling of American history that puts every slave movie Hollywood previously produced to shame. It highlights details that others shy away from while resisting Hollywood’s favorite racist tropes: the White savior and the magic Negro.
Still, many don’t think Parker is qualified to make America confront its sins when he’s hesitated to fully hold himself accountable for his own. It wasn’t until the past allegations began to threaten the movie’s viability that Parker acknowledged his own wrongdoing on the night of the incident.
While Parker clearly has some atoning to do, we can’t just ignore America’s past because of Nate Parker’s past. We still study the Klan propaganda film of the same name in film classes, as well as work by Woody Allen and many other flawed artists.
“But, you know, at some point I have to say it, I was falsely accused. I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated — I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is, no.”
– Nate Parker
Parker feels Turner’s story deserves to be remembered like George Washington’s or those of America’s other founding fathers. “I don’t want a story that’s digestible,” Parker said to Anderson Cooper. “I want this to be something that makes us think, that makes us question who we are.”
“I don’t want to make myself the victim. You have to fight back the instinct to defend yourself.”
– Nate Parker
Parker told Anderson Cooper that he spent eight years obsessing over Turner’s story because of the impact he knew it could have. He wanted to show today’s youth that “resistance is an option” by encouraging “a riotous disposition to injustice.” But he was also clear that resistance doesn’t have to include violence just because Turner’s did.
Parker wants rebels to act against the injustices they see today using the tools at their disposal. All Turner had was religion and violence. But resistance today looks more like the University of Missouri’s Concerned Student 1950 movement or Colin Kaepernick’s National Anthem protest. Or Parker’s production and distribution of this story.
Uncomfortable as they are for Parker himself, the details of his rape case do the same thing he wants Turner’s story to do — force a dialogue about a complex history as the first step toward atonement. Rape culture is just as real as racism. And just as this film is an important reflection on White Supremacy’s crimes against Blacks, Parker’s case brings attention to Patriarchy’s crimes against women, no matter how you feel about his character or decision making.
Parker told Ebony that he did not understand the laws of consent when the incident occurred. I admit that I didn’t know how the law defined rape until after this case became headline news, either. And I’m still fuzzy on the many of the finer points of consent laws. But ignorance is no excuse, for rape, racism or any other violation of moral codes. That is why we must face both Parker’s past and America’s past in a way that goes deeper than or instinctive biases about race and sex.
Whether you feel it’s your place to forgive Parker for his sins or not, his film is important.
Don’t see Birth Of A Nation to support Parker, see it because it is brilliantly written, beautifully shot and not a second too long. It defies imagery and messaging that’s been passed down from generations to discourage Black Americans from resisting their oppression. It forces White viewers to acknowledge the brutality Blacks faced in the past. And it even places America’s present-day issues with racism and brutality into even greater focus. And, as Parker told BlogXilla last week, he is not the only person who sacrificed to tell this story.
It’s unlikely that another Nat Turner story will be told on this scale any time soon. And the research and emotional depth that color this film will be even tougher to reproduce. That’s why seeing and sharing The Birth Of A Nation (however you do it) isn’t about supporting Nate. It’s about keeping Nat Turner’s name and spirit alive for generations to come.
All due respect to those who still plan to boycott this film for their own personal reasons. But rather than throw out the good with the bad, I believe we should all learn by discussing every element of this movie and the historical context of its subject, setting and creator. That starts with seeing Birth Of A Nation this weekend, somehow, some way. How you handle the conversations that follow is up to you.
Below is a transcript of an conversation Parker gave with Morehouse College professor Stephane Dunn and viewers of the film after a preview screening of “Birth of a Nation” in Atlanta last Thursday. The talkback questions, which were submitted by Dr. Dunn, students and viewers have been removed from the transcript.
Nate Parker at Regal Atlantic Station in Atlanta, GA (9/28)
Why Nat Turner?
I grew up in Norfolk, Virgina, not too far from here, and there was a shortage of heroes. For someone to be heroic, usually they either played sports or they pushed dope, but very rarely was the idea (introduced) of someone that was an intellectual and someone that was a person of faith and someone that was a leader in the community, those things weren’t readily accessible to a person like me.
So I learned about Turner as an adult. I thought to myself, why is it that this person was erased from history? And why is it that patriotism was so forced upon on me as a young man? So I kind of felt to myself, this story has kind of helped me to deal with the chip on my shoulder. I always felt growing up that to be Black or to be African had such a negative connotation.
I learned about my Blackness through Sally Struthers infomercials.
Some of you are probably too young, but in between cartoons, they’d have these commercials; For 70 cents a day, you can help an African kid. And the kids were like starving, and their stomachs were poking out, and they had flies literally walking on their eyes. Anybody remember those? You’d be like, “Man, ooh, I’m a lot of things, but I ain’t African.” To be disconnected from your culture and your source and the diaspora at such a young age and to have that sense of self hate applied to you, and for that to manifest in a chip on your shoulder, as it did for me, was something I didn’t really understand until I got older. So when I learned about Nat Turner, it was very liberating, because I felt like I was being introduced to people that looked like me that had a part in helping our liberation come to pass and really played a part in the fabric of the narrative of America. And so when I became a filmmaker, naturally, the first story I wanted to tell as a director, as a writer, when I wanted to cut my teeth, was the story of Nat Turner.
I felt like, one, it was a Braveheart story. I felt like we’ve never had anything like that, where we were able to stand and fight for our freedom in the same ways that our forefathers had in the rebellion that manifests itself in the creation of this country.
So the more I learned about him, the more I learned about people like Denmark Vesey, Toussaint Louverture, Gabriel Prosser, Soujourner Truth and so many people that resisted that were also erased from our history books. So making this film became more of an offering as an artist and as a person of faith to the art community, and to the Black community and to America than it was even a film or something that I could do to further my career.
It started with him being a preacher. So I already went into it with a certain level of faith that superseded any level of faith I had ever had before.
I knew to tell this story, I would have to do something different. It wasn’t like, even with “The Great Debators,” I had the books to rely upon, and I had Denzel. Or “Beyond The Lights,” I had Gina and I had a contemporary story. There was always something that helped take the weight. But when I was dealing with the story about Nat Turner, a story that many people told me literally not to tell, I mean prominent filmmakers that if I told you their name, you would hear a gasp hit the back wall and come back in less than a second.
There were people that said, “Don’t make this movie. There’s a reason this hasn’t been made. For one, you’re not gonna be able to get it funded. If you do, they’re coming for you.”
But for me it was like, “But this is the story of a preacher-turned-revolutionary. Someone who fought that looked like us. It just seemed so obvious that it was a story worth telling. So in getting into it, I started to write the film and I used a lot of biblical references, as you guys saw.
I really wanted to first and foremost deal with the way religion has been used to destroy our community, and juxtapose it against the way it’s been used to liberate us.
And to draw a line between that. Look at the last 72 hours in this country. We’re at a crossroads in many ways as a community. And I think at some point, if we were to call ourselves people of faith, I remember making this film, I had to grapple with the idea of what it meant to be Christian even. Am I a Nat Turner Christian? Or am I a Christian like those who hung him and beheaded him and skinned him and crushed his flesh to grease? Because I think right now, when things like this are happening, it becomes much more difficult for us to kind of embrace faith or religion or anything that is not coinciding with our liberation specifically. So I wanted to deal with the fact that in this film, there was a line that was often crossed in a way that hurt the community. So whether it be that or it be resistance as an option, how many films have we seen that tell the true story of resistance in people that look like us? We just don’t see them.
It was dealing with faith, it was dealing with resistance, and it was dealing with healing. So often we’re told to get over our past, but we’ve never really gotten into it. So I felt like this film could help us deal with the trauma in a way that could promote healing.
My art is a reflection of my activism. Nina Simone said the artist’s job is to reflect the times. And what I saw eight years ago when I started making this film is what I’m seeing now. I think the big misconception is that all of a sudden police are killing us. That’s not the truth. We’ve been (getting) killed by the police since slavery. The first police were slave patrol. So there’s a very interesting relationship we’ve had since our first interactions with the slave patrol that were hired to capture us and brutalize us. So I think that understanding that relationship gives us context, and gives us a better way of understanding why the relationship is (what it is) right now. And it would give, in my opinion, police officers a better understanding.
If you’re being handed down certain ideas, behaviors, that you don’t understand and you’re just falling in the line because you’re being told that this is the way to do it, and those are based on something systemic from hundreds of years ago, then it’s up to us, as citizens, police being citizens as well, to address these things in a way that we can break cycles.
So, my job isn’t really to make films for fun. It’s not really my job. My job as an artist is to figure out how I can deal with the oppression that we’re feeling every day. And like I said, there are people that do more important things than me every day. But I throw a camera around, that’s the thing that I enjoy and I feel like that’s my gift, (but) back to how I approach the crisis. I haven’t really thought about who’s against me or who my enemies are. I’ve kind of just been thinking about who’s for me, who my father is. And I don’t mean to say that in a corny way, but I’m just being honest. I’ve been trying to be obedient with my art in a way that would create legacy. I’m a filmmaker, there’s so many people with so many different occupations, we’re gonna be asked by our children one day what we did in this time. Remember that video? What were you doing at that exact moment? And we’re gonna have to account for that.
There’s no White lead. “I can’t fake it in this one.”
I’m not indicting Hollywood, I’m just saying this is the condition that I operate in every day. They’re like, “Well, people overseas don’t really care about what’s happening in the Black community.” I’m like, “Who said that? Where’s this coming from?” So I made the film, we applied to Sundance, I didn’t know I was gonna get in. But I knew if we got in, that would be the win. So any awards and box office (records), all that is what it is, but if we go up to the 10,000-foot view, the film will exist forever. In the same way that the original “Birth Of A Nation” exists forever. It’s challenged right now I think. I felt like if we could get distribution we would win.
Got into Sundance and then the first screening was just unlike anything I had ever experienced. The standing ovation was so long, we just had to sit people down. And it was like 90-percent European Americans. And then there were like ten other screenings. And every screening was so sold out that people couldn’t get in, and people were outside and they were freaking out and wilding. And I had to go out and stand on top of things and cars and stuff to calm people down. It just turned into something else.
All I know is the film exists. You can kill the messenger, you can come for me, it’s alright. Nat Turner lives and hopefully there’s something to be gained for generations to come.
There’s a very prominent African American director, he read the script and I was supposed to meet him… So I’m real excited about it. And we sat down. He said, “I liked your script, but I didn’t love it.” I was like, “Oh no.” He was like only one thing would have made me love it. I was like, “What? Tell me.” I’m taking out my notebook, and he said, “You need more good White people.” He was dead serious. He said, “White people don’t like that shit. They don’t want to see that shit.” I said, “Brother, I think you missed the point.” I love you, cool, but I really think you missed the point. So this was coming from someone that looked like me. But it was rooted in a fear. Because if this fails, if it would have been a failure, and no one comes to see it in two weeks or whatever, then it’s like, “Well, you missed an opportunity for us to tell a story like this.”
One director told me, “Why don’t you make a film about John Brown?” A Black director. He’s White, but he’s an abolitionist. If that’s the fear that’s happening in Hollywood to a certain extent when it comes to telling our stories, you wonder why you don’t see certain stories. It’s hard. Because people feel like if it doesn’t work, we don’t get another shot. And if it does work and it feels like it makes people uncomfortable, maybe they’d come after you. Some people may call it conspiracy theory, but I live there.
I think that there’s birth in death. I think that when he died, he died for us.
Which is why we believe he lives now, in legacy. When you resist and there’s death, I mean if you look at biblically, it is only through those moments that there is life and there’s progress for those generations to come. And I think if you look at the civil rights movement, or anyone that has created opportunity for us, it came with them giving up their life. I don’t think that it stops with death. Especially not if we are walking in the purpose of God. I think the moment of sacrifice becomes the beginning of your new life or life of purpose. Life before resistance is death. Bondage before you stand is death. And anything that comes after standing up against resistance, in my opinion, is birth and life.
In the research it suggests they did not want him to be in any way associated with Christ. They didn’t want his body to disappear, they didn’t want to bury his body and then (have) someone say, “His body is gone!” There are many historians that believe that they wanted to destroy any type of connection to faith because of what he’d done.
They say when he hung, he hung like a stone until he died. That acting was based on the research. He did not twitch, he did not move a muscle. And then he was gone. And if you noticed with the camera move, we ascended with him and left everyone behind, rather than allowing him to be hung away from us.
Here’s what the tweets have to say:
PHOTO CREDIT: Getty, Twitter