Nate Parker, the talented young Hollywood filmmaker who wrote, directed and produced “The Birth of a Nation,” the independently financed film, that is loosely based on the Nat Turner led slave rebellion of 1831, has seen better days. Right now, for him, life should be sweet: At a time when he should be basking in the elusive, triple scooped confectionary treat of box office success, critical acclaim and pre-Oscar worthy buzz, he probably woke up this morning, wondering how it all went so wrong.
“The Birth of a Nation” opened, weakly, this past weekend on an enhanced art house circuit of 2,100 screens. But last January, the picture set the Sundance Film Festival on its ear by winning all of the top festival awards, receiving a standing ovation at its premiere screening, and then – according to several sources – inspiring the richest acquisition deal in the festival’s history, when Fox Searchlight cut a check for $17.5 million for the right to distribute and market the film. At this point, things were still sweet.
Here comes the rough part: The spotlight and aura of success has shone on Parker for most of this past year. Because of this, his past came under greater public scrutiny, and according to published reports, Parker and a teammate from his college wrestling squad brought a young co-ed back to Parker’s living quarters, engaged in sex with her while she was under the influence of alcohol, and later, the young woman accused Parker and the teammate of rape. As a result of the young woman’s charges, Parker and the teammate were brought to trial. Parker was found innocent and the teammate went to jail, but eventually had his conviction overturned. Because of this, a couple of months ago, Parker had the Twittersphere lit. News of his previous indiscretion, his subsequent acquittal and the suicide of his accuser made for a lurid cocktail that became sensational click bait. I didn’t weigh in at the time because I was on a writing and social media hiatus, but Parker got roasted by Black Twitter, bloggers, feminists, consumer press, the trades and anyone who may have an interest in silencing a powerful voice who was willing to challenge the norms of white supremacy through art. And as anyone with any experience or savvy will tell you, one you’ve unleashed the collective hounds of the dark forces of the Internet, your ass is cooked. This past weekend, the film had a three day box office take of $7.1 million.
I paid to see the film last night, but I’ve been tracking the project for years. Russell Simmons sent the script to me when he was attached as the producer. He wanted my opinion of the piece. From scene one I knew that Parker had written a script that derived its power from its honesty about white supremacy. Parker’s rendering of the circumstances of the 1831 rebellion of slaves and free blacks that Nat Turner led in Virginia is a monumental undertaking that could have shaken up Hollywood, but because of the controversy surrounding its release, and Parker’s inability to express remorse or contrition over the death of his accuser, very few people may see it. And it’s a shame, because he’s created quite a work of art.
The young filmmaker worked for nearly a decade or better to bring his version of history to screens. When conventional financing couldn’t be arranged, he went outside the studio system, and enlisted the aid of the San Antonio Spurs point guard, Tony Parker and retired NBA veteran, Michael Finely, among others, to put up the production costs for his project. Given this particular moment where – due to the proliferation of hand held devices, and the 24/7 news cycle of social media – we have all witnessed blacks who have been subject to naked and unchecked violence by representatives of the state, and so, his film is needed now more than ever. In one memorable scene that references the current climate, Aja Naomi King, the beautiful young actress who Parker has cast as Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry Ann utters to an imagined Turner, and anyone else who cares to listen, “They killing people everywhere. For no reason at all, but being black.”
“The Birth of a Nation” is set in the time when cotton was king. In a time when the south’s primary crop helped America become a world power because the profit margins were incredibly good in a business where few labor costs were incurred. It’s set in a time when any and every slave was subject to the whims of every white man, woman or child. A time when the beloved wife of an enslaved husband could be summoned to perform sexually for a visiting guest in the “big house”. Set in a time when slave catchers could murder or rape any alleged or actual runaway with impunity. A time when disagreement over the cotton trade would eventually lead to a war that would result in the loss of more American lives than any other.
Religion and education, and who controls access to them is thematically at the center of Parker’s film. Because his plantation’s mistress discovers young Turner’s developing ability to read, she brings him out of the field and into the “big house” with her family. When the young genius reaches for the knowledge held in the books on the shelves of the plantation’s well stocked library, he is redirected toward the bible as the only suitable reading for him and his kind.
Drought hurts the crops of the agrarian based economy, and rumors spread of possible insurrection when their owners begin to fear reprisals from a poorly fed and cared for labor force. In order to suppress possible rebellion, a mature Turner is tasked with preaching the gospel to his people. When the itinerant preacher begins to see the harsh conditions of less fortunate slaves – and ultimately the spiritual corruption of the former childhood friend who eventually becomes his master – through radicalized eyes, he begins to make plans to rebel.
Activism through art, literature, music and film is an idea that I support wholeheartedly. I grew up listening to the freedom songs of Curtis Mayfield, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Gil Scott-Heron and others. As a young adult, I worked in the politically charged moment that brought Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Spike Lee to wider recognition. Parker’s “The Brith of a Nation” fits nicely into this tradition. I wished that his highly evolved artistic voice had influenced him to display greater empathy in his role as the face of the film. Because he apparently, wasn’t influenced in this way, an important and potent work of art is being boycotted by many of the people who would benefit most from seeing it. I hope that the film going public finds a way to forgive young Parker for his mistakes, voices with courage like his are few and far between.