TORONTO – Here at the Toronto International Film Festival, the screening of The Birth of a Nation attracted much attention. With daring and defiance, actor and first-time feature-film writer-director Nate Parker chose that as the title for his take on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Va. Parker sought to seize the title of D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name, famous for its technical innovations as well as its controversial portrayals of African-Americans. In doing so, he sought to also usurp its position as a cultural marker.
It requires a herculean effort to make that title shift from examining the rise of the Ku Klux Klan and its white-dominance perspective, as Griffith’s film did, to showing a violent slave uprising spearheaded by a staunch Christian man who realized that turning the other cheek only offered more flesh for the flaying whips and other scourges of plantation owners and their ilk.
Increasing the difficulty of this challenge, audiences now have to incorporate another thorny issue — the sexual assault of women — into this recontextualization, due to recent revelations about a 1999 incident involving Parker while he was a student and athlete at Pennsylvania State University. Within the last two months, he has been forced to re-examine the strange fruit of his own uncomfortable past. Many in the media, including social media, have chastised him for his unwillingness to address and accept responsibility for his actions, beyond referencing his acquittal at the time.
The issue hung low and overly ripe during the Toronto festival’s press conference for the film. While Parker deflected questions about his past — citing his desire to focus on Nat Turner’s story and the film — his co-stars on the panel, especially the women, peeled away the tough skin of this bitter crop.
Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Turner’s mother, took the first bite, speaking with rising fervor about the role of women in the film and the world. “As a woman,” she began (and then took a long pause before continuing), “and as someone who believes strongly in social justice for everybody, it is very frustrating and upsetting to me that we have narratives that are so myopic and that exclude the voices of women. If you look at the canon of American heroism portrayed in American cinema, you would think that women did not exist.
“What makes Birth of a Nation unique is that it rejects that fallacy,” she continued. “So even though there were no women in this story, as it is portrayed, carrying arms, what they were doing — his mother, his grandmother (and) his wife — (was) they held him and they compelled him. They were a crucial part of that revolution. And that’s what it was, a revolution.”
In this light, the film could be seen as an apology, an honest and artistic attempt to express regret. But Parker has not explicitly gone this route, so how do we move forward?
Leading up to the festival, I read as much as I could about Parker’s case and engaged in a series of conversations with a host of people — male and female, black and white. A surprising number of women opened up about their own experiences with sexual assault. I found myself wondering about the woman from that 1999 incident.
The seeming mission statement of The Birth of a Nation emboldens us to reject all forms of blindness. So what should people of conscience do, as the release date nears?
Stick to the mission and take a bite of this strange fruit, says Gabrielle Union, an outspoken survivor of sexual assault. Her character in the film, Esther, is a voiceless victim of rape by a white slave owner.
“This is a movement,” Union said at the press conference, speaking truths Esther was unable to articulate. “And this movement is not single-focused. Yes, we are addressing racial inequity. But (this) movement is inclusive. (It) includes people who fight back against sexual violence. It includes the people wondering why our military personnel come back to our country without proper services. This movie also addresses people with mental health issues or early childhood education issues, or any issue that is addressing an oppressive system.”
I certainly agree with this. But I am still waiting for Parker to address the personal complexities of his Nation.