'The Birth of a Nation' And A Meditation on Erasure [Review]
To erase is defined as “a means by which to rub or scrape out” or to “eliminate completely.” When I think about erasure specifically when it comes to the societal elimination of people — it can be as overt as the above, but most often it is much more insidious in the subtle ways the erasure plays out. The erasure of people shows up in microaggressions like being bumped on the sidewalk without acknowledgement. Or being ignored by a salesperson in a retail store.
And then, there are the macroaggressions.
In today’s modern age, these incidents occur in the form of being left out of advertising images. Or having one’s vote suppressed based on race, age or class. Redlining residents. Disproportionate mass incarceration. It was while watching Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation that it hit me: next to outright genocide, chattel slavery is America’s societal baseline for the erasure of a people, at every turn, at every level of existence. Slavery reduced the enslaved to property; resources akin to livestock. The enslaved were declared 3/5th of a human being by America’s Founding Fathers, many of whom were slave owners themselves, and claimed to be God-fearing Christian men.
In his refusal to be erased by Hollywood, writer-director Nate Parker made the impossible happen. He independently financed a primarily black cast in a historical feature film about a preacher-turned-rebel named Nat Turner. Turner, who led enslaved black people to revolt for their freedom, instigated a 48-hour rampage that left 60 white men dead and ignited the Abolitionist movement in America. A passion project a decade in the making, Parker then broke a record for acquisition with his film at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where it won both the Jury Grand Prize and the Audience Award for American dramatic features. Parker also embodies the role of Nat Turner in the film, and as such, was now undeniably on the map as an actor and an auteur. To date, his roles in Red Tails, The Great Debaters and Beyond The Lights had only popularized him for black moviegoers.
It is for these reasons that The Birth of a Nation is an important cinematic achievement. Unapologetically black historical dramas of any period helmed by black directors rarely command acclaim from film festivals or demand from studios the way Birth of a Nation has. The film delivers an unflinching presentation of Nat Turner, a seminal and revolutionary figure in American history for the masses. While it is heavily dramatized, The Birth of a Nation makes the real Nat Turner, with all his brilliance and rage, visible for a whole new generation. This is particularly valuable as American youth of color are being extremely policed for that same brilliance and rage in their daily lives by teachers, law enforcement and ostensibly, entire governments via the judicial system and voter suppression. Considering that Parker is wearing three hats on this production, the intensity of both his performances and his directing are admirable. There are spoilers from this point on, so stop reading if you don’t want to know anything and come back after you see the film.
Nate Parker trains his eye on the drunken depravity of these white slave masters and the subjugation of the enslaved with the kind of tight, lingering shots that evoke intimacy; the kind that can ramp up enough disgust for Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) to have you cheering through tears when he awakens to Nat’s axe upon his chest. The actual insurrection takes up less than 30 minutes of screen time. We spend the majority of the film watching Nat come of age as a witness to heinous abuses. The cruelty crescendos on the Turner plantation and others in the county as Nat’s character loses his father, who has to flee after killing a slave catcher. He finds refuge in the Bible’s word at the instruction of his master’s wife, only to have the opportunity to be educated yanked from him as he is sent to pick cotton as a tween. Nat witnesses humans being auctioned. He endures beatings, a dog attack and a gut-wrenching whipping while tied crucifixion-style to a post.
The image of Nat Turner left tied from daylight-to-nightfall on his knees with his back torn open broke me down.
While Nat is able to find solace in the word of God, able to travel and enjoys a measure of voice and influence within his master’s house because of their childhood friendship — the women in Birth of a Nation are spared not an iota of kindness. And this is where the erasure Parker seeks to rebel against in his work begins. The subtleties of masculine microaggression are almost imperceptible to the untrained eye of someone unfamiliar with intersectional erasure. But isn’t Parker seeking to liberate black men and women through cinema? Perhaps—but a great chauvinistic cost, where the women characters lose in the transaction. Penelope Ann Miller, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union and Esther Scott all turn in powerful, emotional performances, but I swear fo’ God that they are all underutilized. This is because women throughout the film are hampered—and in Gabrielle Union’s case—muzzled completely by the script.
In The Birth of a Nation, there is a woman’s inability to think and/or speak for herself baked into the crux of the film, and it hobbles the project, becoming an unwelcomed distraction.
Later on in the film, the master’s wife sends her favorite slave boy into the cotton fields because her husband, who is now dead, said so before his last breath. Funny, years before, she made the unilateral decision to teach Nat to read, which at the time was breaking the law. Now, she’s following the word of a dead man? What’s up with that?
Nat Turner’s mother and grandmother are featured in more than a couple of scenes together, and yet these two women who are mother and daughter in a time when being on the same plantation with family was a rarity—to essentially speak to or about Nat. All this private proximity that slavery demands of women around household duty, Massa is nowhere to be found, but still, next to no talking. Aja Naomi King, who plays Cherry Turner, is rescued off the auction block at the urging of Nat to Samuel for $275—an inconveniently expensive amount to spend on a humbug. Nonetheless, when Cherry arrives at the Turner plantation, she full-body tackles Nat, punching and screaming at him—racked from the trauma of her journey to the auction block. She’s a fighter, but once she gets cleaned up, all the fight leaves her. She is tentative in her speaking and in her gaze from then on. And when she is approached at night by slave catchers, we don’t even get to see her fight her attackers. No woman wants to be raped—and she already demonstrated no fear in striking strange men. The next shot shows her beaten beyond recognition, silenced. We don’t need to see a rape take place to see her put up a fight or even scream. Neither happens.
Esther, played by Gabrielle Union, was really hard to watch in The Birth of a Nation, because in all her sweetness, she mouthed not one word during any of her screen time. It should be noted that with respect to the rape scene, this silence was on purpose from what I have read as Gabrielle Union channeled her own experiences as a rape survivor. In the film, though, Esther was a person that I wanted to hear from. And yet, an entire scene is dedicated to three men, Nat, Esther’s husband and the house negro, Isaiah, who is deftly played by Roger Guenveur Smith, hashing out how Esther will be marched into the Big House to be raped by Samuel Turner’s guest. She has zero agency in the conversation amongst the men. She has to hear this exchange. It is right outside the door of a one-room cabin. She is literally made to be invisible. When she leaves the Big House, she crumples into her husband’s arms and weeps. This performance is a choice—of course, she has been shattered by the violation she experienced—but the absence of any dialogue speaks to her station in the moment and in the film.
I almost confused her for a mute because she didn’t even speak in her own wedding scene. One word would have changed the scene completely, be that word “no” or “why?” as two examples. Instead, it was another missed opportunity to represent a woman as a thinking, expressive being in the face of daily horror. In film, story, dialogue and script, these decisions are intentional. This marginalization on top of the scourge of the Peculiar Institution’s injuries is so smooth that it’s scary. For a second, let me go back to Cherry, the fighter who would become Nat’s wife. They have had all of but two interactions and no indication of the passage of time before the proposal scene, which takes place at night. Nat rides in on a horse (classic “knight in shining armor” imagery), hops off, approaches Cherry and plants a kiss on her without a word. Now, Nat is a man of God, raised by women—and he knows Cherry’s recent past—and yet he invades her space this way, then proposes. The kisses that come after fall flat, at least for me—because isn’t the whole point of this scene having her accept his love before he gets intimate with her? It is the 1800s. Men do not just roll up on women like this, even if they are in heavy like.
In another scene, Cherry divulges that she has her own name given by her mother, from whom she was sold away at 13. She declines to be called by her own name when Nat offers, saying, “You can call me anything you want.” Excuse me? Fortunately, he says he will call her “Queen,” but it’s still not her name. This is what happens all too often when men write women. The haze of patriarchy clouds the narrative ever so thinly, leading to erasure. I submit that Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were so focused on telling one man’s liberation story that the women and their character developments, behaviors and motivations sat dormant in the blind spot of their male points of view. I found this so ironic after discovering a quote of the real Nat Turner while researching for this piece, where he speaks of an omnipresent hyper-awareness:
“To a mind like mine, restless, inquisitive and observant of everything that was passing, it is easy to suppose that religion was the subject to which it would be directed; and, although this subject principally occupied my thoughts, there was nothing that I saw or heard of to which my attention was not directed.”
Birth of a Nation should come with a trigger warning. It is exceedingly violent and bloody, rightly so, as it was set during a slave rebellion. Slavery as an industry happened to black men, women and children. Boyhood and manhood were fully experienced in Birth of a Nation though. Womanhood? Not so much. And in the process, the film loses some of the humanity it tries so ardently to assert. Whatever your own conflicts may be about seeing it, as I told Jean Celestin at the screening I attended, I am glad Birth of a Nation got made. But I watched it closely—especially at the intersection of gender and race, as I believe we all should. Not in the interest of being politically correct or historically accurate, because this film is neither and need not be… but in the interest of guarding against casual, undue erasure, which is its own act of rebellion.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is an award-winning creative campaign writer/producer (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and a 3-time festival selected filmmaker. She is also a business author. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls her book, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your Entertainment Business, “the definitive industry bible.”