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.