“Birth of a Nation” praised, criticized

Denika Williams,

“The Birth of a Nation” is actor Nate Parker’s first film as a director, but his film is very different from the original. In this dramatization based on a true story, Nate Parker portrays an enslaved African-American man named Nat Turner who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

I saw the film during opening week earlier this month because as a young black woman, I felt that it was important to do so. Parker’s film has been met with both high praise and heavy criticism.

One hundred years ago, film director D.W. Griffith released “The Birth of a Nation,” a silent film adapted from a book by Thomas F. Dixon Jr., about families during the Civil War and Reconstruction eras that depicted members of the Ku Klux Klan as heroes who protected their women from stereotypical “dangerous” black males.

“The same way that I’m reclaiming the title, I’m reclaiming a hero,” Parker told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. Parker has said he wanted to reclaim the original film and use it as a recruitment for black youths to get more politically engaged.

In the opening scenes of the movie, Turner is given “the gift” to see visions from God at a spiritual ritual. The slave master’s wife teaches Turner how to read the bible and preach and Turner’s master begins taking him on the road to visit plantations with defiant and unmotivated slaves.  

Throughout the film, Turner and other slaves are beat to a near-breaking point. When his wife is beaten, it inspires him to lead a revolt. He becomes aware of the systematic oppression of black people and feels that he was being used by religion. After a two-day revolution, 60 white men, women and children are killed and Turner is hung for his crimes.

With a budget of $10 million dollars, the film won the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Fox Searchlight bought the film for $17.5 million dollars, a record for movies in the Sundance Film Festival, according to the New York Times.

Days before the film’s debut, allegations surfaced against Parker and a college friend, who were accused in 1999 of raping a 18-year-old female classmate at Penn State University.  “I was proven innocent; I was vindicated,” Parker told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. “And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. You know, I feel terrible that — you know — her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is — no.” Many critics have denounced the film because of these allegations.

Actor Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor and advocate against sexual assault, has a silent cameo role in the film where she is raped. Union stated that she wanted to use the film to talk about sexual violence. In an op-ed with the Los Angeles Times, Union wrote that she accepted the role because of her experience, that the silence of her character “represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular.”

While watching “The Birth of a Nation,” I felt emotional from beginning to end. The film bought back the emotions I feel when I see images of police brutality towards unarmed blacks in the streets. It hurt to watch the violent images on the screen because I knew they were wrong.

With all the events that my ancestors suffered through for years, beginning in the slavery era and ending with the Civil Rights Movement, we still are not equal. I encourage everyone to go out and see The Birth of a Nation because it’s a powerful reenactment of a period in America’s history that birthed a nation. Nat Turner’s story is one piece of American history that needs to be told.