I consider myself to be a movie aficionado and, before my daughter was born, would go to the movies at least once a week. I am particularly fond of independent films but will watch pretty much anything (except Westerns—I’m not big into Westerns). I teach a course on Race, Media, and Politics and am keenly aware of the historical racist institutional practices that have led to the scarcity of Black images in cinema. Consequently, I go out of my way to support Black filmmakers and/or films with predominantly Black casts. I have my limits; there are but so many Madea movies one woman can take. But by and large, I try to add to the box-office sales of Black movies, especially during opening weekend, in order to signal to Hollywood that such movies are in demand and warrant a place on the big screen.
But A Birth of a Nation wasn’t just another Black movie. This was going to be a Black filmmaker telling the story of a Black slave who conspired to lead more than 70 Black rebels in an insurrection against slavery. This definitely would not be a Madea movie!
Besides, we’re big Nat Turner fans in our home. When we first found out I was pregnant, my husband and I created a list of prospective baby names, not unlike most expectant parents. The list was fairly short. If the baby was a girl, she would be named after my maternal grandmother. If the baby was a boy, my husband decided his name should either be Denmark Vesey or Nat Turner. We had a girl. Natalie. We sometimes call her Nat, though. And although she’s not technically named after Nat Turner, she often channels the spirit of a Black revolutionary empowered by the divine to defy the existing social order—particularly around bedtime.
It seemed like an eternity between when the film was initially announced and when it was set to be released. And my anticipation for the movie only grew with as its release date grew near. In the months leading up to its October 2016 opening date, however, the movie became mired by controversy as the 1999 rape trial of the movie’s writers—Nate Parker and Jean Celestin—was made public.
Now, I have a personal rule—I don’t support rapists or child molesters. Of any race/ethnicity. Period. So a rape allegation was enough to halt my enthusiasm for Birth of a Nation immediately. I’d be lying, though, if I told you I wasn’t torn. Every time the trailer for the movie aired, I wanted so desperately for Nate Parker to give me a reason to reconsider. I started rationalizing in my head what he could do or say to make it okay for me to break my personal rule. But every time he spoke of the incident, Nate Parker’s toxic misogyny reinforced my decision to abstain from seeing this film.
For instance, in a recent interview with Robin Roberts, Nate Parker said he absolutely would not apologize for any of the incidents surrounding his rape case because he “was falsely accused” and “proven innocent.” Well…not quite. He was found not guilty, which is not the same thing as being found innocent. The not guilty verdict was based partly on testimony that Nate Parker and the victim had had prior sexual contact. In other words, an archaic notion of consent that perpetually entitles men to women’s bodies after an initial sexual encounter was the dividing line between a guilty and a not guilty verdict. This is a far cry from being “innocent.”
I get it. Nate Parker was acquitted and, in the end, only three people know the absolute truth about what went on during the early morning hours on August 21, 1999—Nate Parker, Jean Celestin, and the victim. What is known is that, shortly after the incident, the victim dropped out of college and attempted to commit suicide as a result of the alleged rape and subsequent verbal harassment from Parker and Celestin. I read in an article where the victim’s brother stated that, after the trial, she was never the same. She was detached and depressed. In 2012, she ended up in rehab, where she took her own life.
So we know a woman is dead. Yet, Nate Parker bears no responsibility and shows no remorse for any part he may have played in her demise. This is why I can’t. I. Just. Can’t.
You see, this one is personal. Now in my thirteenth year as a professor, there are very few things that students say or do that catch me off guard. But I was completely unprepared for the day that one of my students broke down in tears and confessed in the middle of a class discussion on sexual violence in the Black community that she had been sexually assaulted on campus by someone she knew. To protect her privacy and conceal her identity, I will not disclose any details related to her ordeal. I will tell you that time stood still as she recounted the incident. There was an uncomfortable silence among her classmates. In that moment, however, it didn’t matter that there were 29 other students in the room. In fact, I wanted them all to disappear. In that moment, it also didn’t matter that I was a professor that was facilitating a college-level course and there were 30 more minutes of class left to get through. I wanted class to end immediately. I only knew in that moment that I was one woman looking at another woman who had been deeply wounded by the actions of another human being and I felt responsible. How could this happen? On my campus? With each word that detailed her pain, my emotions evolved from sadness, to rage, to utter helplessness. Somewhere out there, there was a set of parents who trusted my colleagues and me to educate and protect their child and we failed them—and her.
I think about that young lady when I am tempted to go see A Birth of a Nation. I especially think about how I tried to comfort her by holding her like she was my daughter because, one day, she might very well be my daughter. I also think about all the other young ladies across college campuses who have been or will be victims of sexual assault.
I know that I won’t make or break A Birth of a Nation by not going to see it. And I know that this movie’s success or failure won’t define my ability to protect my daughter or my students from the evils of the world. But how can I tell my daughter, students, mentees, or anyone else who may be taking cues from my actions that their bodies mean less to me than a fictional movie? Yes, a fictional movie. While this movie is inspired by true events, it is nevertheless a Hollywood version of Nat Turner’s rebellion that exercises “creative license” with respect to certain details. Had Nate Parker’s account been the only avenue for learning about Nat Turner, perhaps a stronger case could be made for overlooking his otherwise problematic past. But Nate Parker is not the gatekeeper of Black history or any other history for that matter. So I’m sitting this one out.
p.s. This entry isn’t meant to persuade anyone from seeing A Birth of a Nation. And I won’t judge you if you do (well, maybe I will a little bit). I only write to explain why this is a movie I will not be going to see.