I saw (most of) “Birth of A Nation” so you don’t have to
Even when removed from the narrative of its creator, the film does not stand on its own and is little more than sexist trauma porn.
Note: I had originally wrote this last week with the hopes of publishing it as an official statement for BLM:GR as we were invited to this showing by Partners for Racism Free Community, but that didn’t happen, so I’m publishing my thoughts here.
I did not want to see Nate Parker’s “Birth of A Nation” but I did.
And boy, do I regret it.
First and foremost, I did not want support Parker’s work because of his history with being accused of assault and the rape culture apologism surrounding those who defend him from criticism. I was disgustingly astonished at the parallels between what Parker said concerning the incident and the words of a local poet who I also accused and gave a similar non-apology regarding his behavior and was equally protected by the community from further accountability or responsibility for his behavior. Funny enough, this poet was present at the showing of the movie.
But even if that wasn’t part of Parker’s story, I wouldn’t be interested in yet another slave narrative from a cisgender, heterosexual, able bodied Black man.
I knew it was going to be the same inevitable tired, patriarchal story being told, that the rape of Black women was going to be used as a plot-point for a Black cis straight male character’s growth, a catalyst for his rebellion. I knew there was going to be a Sympathetic White Male Slave Owning Character operating as a manifestation of the “Not All White People/Not All Cops” argument. I knew going into it the movie that I was going to be upset and shaken by the violence therein, that the depictions would be too visceral, too intimate, too revealing, too dehumanizing, too familiar, and drive me to panic and tears.
Sitting in the theater, it all hit me like a train and I immediately got nervous And after an hour and a half of everything I had feared and predicted down to the letter, I walked out, having seen more than enough and needing to get out before the scenes of the violent squashing of the Turner rebellion came. I guess I’m surprised at absolutely unsurprising it all was. It went exactly how I expected it to, especially how the women in the film were going to be objectified. I did not leave enlightened, moved or shown something new in a new light. Instead, I felt tired. Tired at being erased, tired at the suffering of Black people, specifically Black women, being used as a plot point for those in power, a theatre of suffering to endear people to our hurt.
I felt angry and exhausted because these dynamics in the movie- of racial supremacy, of white entitlement and paternalism towards Black labor and pain, of the total dismissal of our ancestry, history, life and roots until we are eviscerated, debased and humiliated for all to see-are still so present now. I gained nothing from the uprising against white people at the end and if anything, feel like that is an opiate. What about our real life resistance and struggle? What about how these things manifest even now?
I also felt deep discomfort because I didn’t actually understand who the movie was for: Do Black people need to be tortured and triggered by these depictions? Are we supposed to feel a small, false sense of justice and liberation because in this movie we finally got to “fight back” even though we still live in a world that tells us to behave, mind our Ps and Qs, not to react or criticize or try to dismantle systems of violence that hurt us, the film acting as a rather insulting opiate? Do white people need to see Black bodies humiliated, subjugated, mangled and destroyed to believe that we have been oppressed and see the parallels to what is happening to us today and believe our truth?
Some compelling parts of the movie’s narrative was the honest look at how Christianity has been used both to subjugate and liberate the African diaspora in different measures. As a Black woman who experiences an intersection of racial gender and gendered race that neither Black men nor white women do, I also thought it was necessary to include the role white women played in white supremacy and the subjugation of enslaved Africans of all genders, especially women. There’s also the underlying theme of the false hope granted under respectability politics. The movies shows how it came out of a need to survive and be seen as more human according to Euro-centric standards, but how in the end it’s not the way we will become free. Instead, knowing our worth and ourselves and having pride in our identities, lives, history and power and fighting unapologetically for our freedom is what has always worked to our advantage. I would say that the presence of these themes were a fluke, however, and could have been more deeply explored while forgoing the patriarchy.
Ultimately, I still ask, again: what is it about Black suffering and pain that people love so much? Why do we have to see white men being so-and-so violent to finally doubt their goodness and intentions and Black people being so-and-so violated and mutilated to finally believe them? Who was this movie made for and why? I fear and greatly doubt the humanity of any person that needs to see these violent and sexist narratives to believe and trust the words of their descendants.
The next day, I was in the company of three other professional Black women and we spoke about our experiences with watching the movie. We agreed it was abysmal and spoke to the violence of the depiction, the way it erased and exploited Black bodies especially those of women, and that it was, essentially, torture porn. It is no surprise that the sister of the deceased woman who accused Nate Parker and his accomplice, Jean Celestin, felt the same way.
For me, this both exposes and deepens the fissures in Black activists, organizing and creative communities between Black cis het men and, well, all other Black folks, especially women and femmes. We bite our tongues at the violence they commit against us, stay quiet at how we are victimized by white supremacy, and yet are expected to organize on their behalf and support their creative endeavors, no matter how violent, exploitative, patriarchal or white.
In truth, the film exposed how Nate Parker is both his patriarchal depiction of Nat Turner and in many respects also the slave owners as well. The sooner we can reckon with this truth and see how deeply entrenched his misogynist violence and white patriarchal values and those of our society are in his work, the better.