‘The Birth of a Nation’ Is an Epic Fail

Leslie M. Alexander, The Nation, October 6, 2016

A firestorm of controversy has swirled around Nate Parker and his film The Birth of a Nation in the two months since several media outlets revealed that Parker and his co-author, Jean McGianni Celestin, stood trial for raping a young woman in 1999. Across the country, social media lit up as people debated Parker’s guilt, questioned whether to boycott the film, and expressed outrage about violence against women. As the storm raged, however, one critical issue went ignored. No one questioned the fundamental value or quality of the film. Based on the standing ovations it received at the Sundance Film Festival, we assumed that The Birth of a Nation was inherently valuable, inspirational, educational, and transformative.

We were wrong.

The Birth of a Nation claims to tell the true story of Nat Turner, leader of the bloodiest slave rebellion in United States history. A film on Turner is long overdue, and as a professional historian of the black experience in the nineteenth century, I have anxiously awaited one. {snip}

After attending an advance screening of the film, however, I now know that Parker failed miserably in his mission. Contrary to his promises of “historical fidelity,” Parker created a deeply flawed, historically inaccurate movie that exploits and distorts Nat Turner’s story and the history of slavery in America. Nearly everything in the movie–ranging from Turner’s relationship with his family, to his life as a slave, and even the rebellion itself–is a complete fabrication. Certainly the film contains sprinklings of historical fact, but the bulk of Parker’s story about the rebellion is fictitious: Nat Turner did not murder his owner, nor did he kill a slave patroller. Turner’s rebellion was not betrayed by a young boy, or by anyone else involved in the revolt. To the contrary, the rebels fought until the bitter end. The shootout depicted in Jerusalem, Virginia, never happened, because the rebels were stopped by the militia before they ever reached Jerusalem. The list of inaccuracies, distortions, and fabrications goes on and on.


Consider, for example, the film’s troubling depictions of black women. A crucial turning point in the movie occurs when Turner’s wife, Cherry, is brutally gang raped by a group of slave patrollers–an attack the film portrays as the spark that ultimately drove Turner to launch his rebellion. But there is not a shred of historical evidence to suggest that Cherry was ever raped by slave patrollers, nor is there any evidence to indicate that an attack on his wife inspired Turner to rebel. By all accounts, Turner took up arms against slavery because he believed slavery was morally wrong and violated the law of God. In the months prior to the rebellion, he reported receiving a series of visions and messages from God predicting a cataclysmic “race war” that would destroy slavery, and by early 1831, Turner believed that God had selected him as the person to lead the revolt. According to the historical record, these were the only inspirations for Turner’s rebellion. {snip}


I will let others speculate on the reasons why Parker and Celestin decided to fabricate a story line about rape–specifically gang rape–to spin a false tale about the motivation for Nat Turner’s rebellion. I will simply say that their story is not only untrue but it also perpetuates destructive lies about black women. Enslaved women fought for their dignity and freedom, and they exercised agency over their lives, in spite of unimaginable horrors. This is the story that deserves to be told, not one that disseminates archaic and damaging myths that cast black men as courageous saviors and black women as helpless victims.


Is there anything redeeming about this film? Yes. But the benefits do not outweigh the negatives. The Birth of a Nation is a deeply problematic movie that misrepresents Turner and his rebellion, and sends insidious messages about slavery and the multifaceted roles of black women in the battle for freedom. Despite Parker’s bluster about Nat Turner’s heroism and his claims to historical accuracy, he failed to provide a truthful rendering of Nat Turner’s life, his rebellion, or the experience of black people during slavery. As a result, Parker and Jean Celestin pimped black suffering for financial gain and proved that they have no respect for black history or for the people who fought for our freedom.

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