The Birth of a Nation (2016)


When Barack Obama leaves the White House this January he will be worth over $12.2 million dollars.  Barring the unlikely possibility that he takes the path of Jimmy Carter instead of Bill Clinton, I suspect this is only the beginning, that over the next few decades the first black President will amass a vast fortune. For the American ruling class, he has been a valuable tool, a black intellectual who has stood between the rich and revolution.

“My administration,” the president added, “is the only thing between you and the pitchforks.”

In her review of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, Jacobin writer Eileen Jones takes issue, not only with the films historical inaccuracies, with the contrived, melodramatic plot line revolving around a fictionalized rape of Nat Turner’s wife Cherry, she disliked it so much she called it a “travesty.” I think she’s largely right. In the end, The Birth of a Nation is a pretty bad movie, but I also think she misses the film’s latent possibilities. Nate Parker had a good film right at his fingertips, but he lost his nerve.

Perhaps the best account of the Antebellum South is the book The Cotton Kingdom by Central Park architect Frederick Law Olmstead. Olmstead doesn’t pull any punches. The South, he argues, is a militarized police state, a perverse hellhole with a slave patrol every couple of square miles. This much The Birth of a Nation gets right. In fact, the opening of Nate Parker’s movie is such a vivid dramatization of the nasty brutality of Southampton Country Virginia in 1831, it’s probably worth seeing  for this alone. The difference between the American south under the Slave Power and Germany under the Nazis is pretty much nothing.

Early in The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s fictionalized Nat sees a book draped across a chair on the porch of the great house of the Turner Plantation, and steals it. Over the next few years, he teaches himself how to read. When Elizabeth Turner, the wife of the plantation’s owner, comes to Nat’s mother and informs him that her son knows how to read, the poor woman is terrified. Surely it means torture, and perhaps even the death penalty, but Elizabeth, played by Penelope Ann Miller is a liberal, not a conservative. She wants to take young Nat into the great house. She wants to make him a house slave and further his education. Elizabeth may not be evil, but she’s also committed to the status quo. Nat will not have access to the books on history, philosophy or science that line the shelves of the plantation library. “Those are for white people.” The only book he will be allowed to read is the Bible.

Years later Nat Turner is now a young man in his twenties. Elizabeth is a widow, and the failing plantation has been taken over by her good natured, but feckless son Samuel, a physically imposing but dimwitted young man played by Armie Hammer. After Reverend Zalthall, a local white clergyman, suggests that Samuel can get his property out of debt by renting out Nat as a preacher, Nat, in effect, becomes Barack Obama, the compromised black intellectual standing between the corrupt ruling class and the pitchforks. Admittedly the reward never quite reaches $12.2 million dollars, but as long Nat plays ball, as long as he is willing to tell slaves on neighboring plantations that the Bible commands their obedience, that if they passively defer to their owners in this life , they’ll have their reward in heaven, he gets to travel, stay out of the cotton fields, and, just perhaps, have some influence over his master. Indeed ,when Nat sees a brutalized teenage girls on the auction block, Cherry, his future wife, and suggests that Samuel buy her as a present for his wife, Samuel comes through with $250 dollars.

Had Nate Parker followed through on his portrayal of Nat Turner as a corrupt black intellectual in the mold of Barack Obama, The Birth of a Nation just might have been the best film of 2016.

Part of the reason he couldn’t is that black America in 2008 was facing a very different situation from black America in 1831. As Noam Chomsky argued in his book Manufacturing Consent, it’s mainly democratic governments that rely on propaganda. Authoritarian societies rely on jails, secret police, the murder of dissidents, and of course slave patrols. Parker has dramatized the totalitarian hell of the Antebellum South so vividly, he makes it a little difficult to see exactly why the plantation owners of Southampton County were willing to pay so much money to have Nat Turner propagandize their slaves into obedience. Perhaps the most brutal, and vivid scene in the entire movie comes when Samuel and Nat visit a neighboring plantation. There they witness a recalcitrant slave on a hunger strike being force-fed, Gitmo-style, having his teeth knocked out with a hammer and gruel poured down his throat until he almost chokes to death.

Not being quite able to explain why exactly such a fascist ruling class would even need a black intellectual to keep his people in line, Nate Parker fumbles the second half of the film. As Eileen Jones writes, the real Nat Turner rebelled against the slave power because he believed that the Bible considered slavery to be evil. The Birth of a Nation does indeed hint at how its fictionalized Nat Turner eventually concluded that the Bible was a revolutionary, and not a reactionary document, but as a first time filmmaker and screenwriter he doesn’t quite know how to dramatize his ideas, to translate the abstract into dialog and plot. So he clumsily hacks together a resolution where Cherry is raped by a slave patrol.

Cherry’s rape is historically plausible. If the original D.W. Griffith film The Birth of a Nation was centered around rape, it was largely projection. D.W. Griffith was obsessed with the idea that black men desired white women. In reality it was the mirror opposite. South black men didn’t rape white women. Southern white men raped their slaves.  The only problem is that in the context of Parker’s screenplay, the far more interesting resolution would have focused on Turner, a black intellectual, finally becoming  so sick of standing between his master and the pitchforks, that he picked  up the pitchfork himself. Will Barack Obama pick up that pitchfork when he leaves the White House in January? I wouldn’t bet on it. Those speaker’s fees for preaching submission to authority now pay hundreds of thousands of dollars per minute.

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