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Sin, cinema, and Nate Parker: the complicated case of The Birth of a Nation

I was there when The Birth of a Nation premiered, and I’m still trying to figure out what to feel.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation
Elliot Davis
Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

I was in the audience on January 25, when The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Eccles Theater was packed. I had to sit in the balcony. I confess that at the time, I had only a dim sense of who the film’s writer, director, and star Nate Parker was, not having seen his starring turn in Beyond the Lights. But I could tell the hum of excitement was unusual.

As has been widely reported, the film received not one but two standing ovations, one before it even started. Some people have taken this as an indication that everyone in the room was dying to find a savior in the wake of the disastrous #OscarsSoWhite nominations just a week earlier — and that may be so.

But after the film, Parker called everyone onto the stage who’d worked on the film. Typically at Sundance, directors bring up the cast and other “above the line” people—writers, producers, maybe a costume designer if you’re lucky — but this was a crowd of delighted people standing on stage, celebrating, and we wanted to celebrate with them, because it felt like their group project had finally come to fruition.

The cast and crew of The Birth of a Nation on stage after the film’s premiere on January 25, 2016.
The cast and crew of The Birth of a Nation on stage after the film’s premiere on January 25, 2016.

The horde of people on stage helps partly explain the ovations and the buzz for Birth of a Nation. Some of the joy of Sundance is that many of the people who worked on the film get to be at the premiere: directors, stars, and writers, sure, but also assistant editors and camera guys. If you work on an independent film — typically a thankless job with low pay (if you’re lucky) and no sleep and only a slim hope of distribution — the premiere is a big deal, and if it’s at Sundance, it’s the biggest of deals.

That’s especially true in the case of Birth of a Nation, which famously took years to get to the screen. Parker started the screenplay in 2009 and worked on it partly under a fellowship through the Sundance Institute. He struggled to get it financed, eventually investing $100,000 of his own money before other major investors started to bite. After the premiere, he said from the stage that he was advised not to even try making it, since the subject matter — the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner — wasn’t exactly box office gold.

As happens at festivals, the myth of The Birth of a Nation was rapidly pumped up by overnight chatter on social media and in the film press. That was buoyed by a bidding war from distributors responding to the premiere. I woke up early to news that the film had finally been sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a finished film at any film festival in history. Parker did interviews. People wrote Twitter raves. The movie won the festival’s Audience Award and its Grand Jury Prize, outpacing all of the other dramas in competition.

By the time we left Park City, the myth was fully developed: Nate Parker’s passion project, the film he wrote, directed, and starred in, was an Oscar frontrunner in 2017. (Never mind that the ink on the nominations for 2016 was barely dry.)

Sundance created the myth, but it changed

There’s a grim joke about festival goggles, and how when you’re a critic seeing a movie at a festival, you tend to lose perspective, hating it more vehemently or loving it more passionately than you might have in normal circumstances, because you’re seeing three to five movies a day (and writing about them at night), and everything gets a little bleary.

So I couldn’t really remember what I’d written about the film. Last week, as Birth of a Nation finally released in theaters, I went back to my review, worried I’d find festival goggles in effect. I think I escaped the trap. I’d called it “incredibly timely” and a “stunning work of singular vision and passionate political argument,” which it is. I’d also pointed to some of its flaws, and noted that its biggest problem is its valorization of Turner, which approaches, if not outright hurdles, the hagiographic.

But what seemed (and still seems) most important about the film was twofold. First, it illustrated that racism isn’t merely a matter of individual hearts and minds, but also embedded within a system, and that addressing racism requires addressing both.

Second, and this seems extremely important now, in its harrowing tour of the plantations where Turner was forced to preach to quell any rebellions, and then in the uprising (linked visually, if problematically, to the forthcoming Civil War), it told a story about how the Bible is sometimes used to oppress people, and sometimes propels them to seek freedom.

Nat and Cherry pray at their wedding in The Birth of a Nation.
Nat and Cherry’s wedding.
Elliot Davis

Smash cut forward by eight months: Days before the big Deadline interview about Parker’s 1999 rape trial broke, I got a call that offered me an interview with Parker. At the time I was the chief film critic at Christianity Today, the flagship US evangelical publication founded by Billy Graham, and Parker hadn’t given an interview to the press in months about the film.

I talked to Parker by phone for 20 minutes on Saturday, August 6, and published it the following Thursday. I’d heard through the grapevine that Nate saw his Christian faith as integral to the film, and that’s what we talked about: his interest in telling Turner’s story, racism in America and particularly in Christian America, and what he hoped churchgoing audiences around the country would take away from the film. “I ask your readers or ask my supporters, ‘What kind of Christian are you?’” he said.I asked that at Sundance: ‘Are you a Nat Turner Christian, or are you a Christian like those who hung him and decapitated him and skinned his body and crushed his flesh to grease?’”

The day after the interview, the Deadline article that referenced the story of Parker’s rape allegations during college was published, cracking the whole thing wide open. Parker had been acquitted, but the case was and continues to be both frustrating and exceptionally complicated, especially because it intersects with national soul-searching on matters like race, gender, and sexual assault (particularly on college campuses). And because his co-writer, Jean Celestin, was also indicted in the case, which occurred while the two men were wrestling for Penn State (itself not a bastion of exemplary conduct when it comes to athletics and sexual-assault allegations). Soon, the news surfaced that the two men’s accuser had committed suicide four years earlier. It is, unequivocally, a tragedy.

I struggle with Parker’s “person of faith” statements

It turned out the allegations were known, a fact I saw noted briefly in one place before I did the interview, along with the acquittal — I should have done my homework better. It hadn’t come up in any other interviews about the film after Sundance, either. (Some have said they were aware of the case then, but didn’t want to rain on Parker’s parade. I understand the sentiment, even as I, and I imagine they, wish they had spoken up.)

As the cycle of interviews continued, in which Parker seemed unable to actually apologize for what he’d done years earlier, I cowered a bit and watched from behind parted fingers.

Because what can you say?

I believe sexual assault is a heinous crime that shatters lives, mostly the lives of women. I went to college and teach at a college, and know all too well about the devastatingly common and often confusing epidemic of campus rape. I believe Parker’s accuser, who committed suicide in 2012, was not making things up. I believe Parker probably believes he is right. I believe Parker is sincere in his faith. I think he’s trying to understand.

But I also believe the way he talked about his past over the past few months is morally indefensible. Parker started with the now all-too-familiar line that as a husband and father of five daughters, he’s matured since that time, and told Deadline that the entire experience was “one of the most painful moments in my life,” which must be one of the most ill-advised lines to ever be uttered in an interview like this.

Since then, he’s given a muddled set of interviews in which he doesn’t apologize — unless I’ve missed it, he hasn’t said “I am sorry” once — but says things about having “empathy” for the situation and feeling regret. He’s talked about consent and toxic male culture, but it came off unsatisfying. But he’s also said he was “vindicated” and “proven innocent,” which misrepresents the meaning of acquittal. And, in a statement posted to Facebook after the news about his accuser’s suicide, he wrote:

While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.

This is complicated, especially because as many people have noted (most recently Steve Harvey), Parker and Celestin are both black men, and their accuser was a white woman, and the history of American prejudices against black men accused of raping white women runs very deep.

But this framing, the “as a person of faith” angle, cuts close to the bone, closer than usual in this case. As a person of faith myself, I don’t think “using more wisdom” is a terribly adequate, compassionate, or just way to describe what should have happened here. When I hear Parker say things like, "Are we in the business of headlines or are we in the business of healing?” I get frustrated, because whatever he meant by it, that kind of false dichotomy is what keeps victims in silence.

And without even bringing my religious commitments into it, I think the most troubling thing about all of Parker’s words is that they’re coming from the writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation is meant to be a film about repentance

Some reviews of The Birth of a Nation have framed it as a movie about Nate Parker first and Nat Turner second. I don’t really agree. Or, at least, I didn’t see it through that lens, since I didn’t really have a sense of the backstory before I saw the film. But also, I’d argue that The Birth of a Nation isn’t really about Nat Turner; his story is just the excuse to tell a bigger story about the Bible and race in America.

Slave catchers in The Birth of a Nation.
Slave catchers in The Birth of a Nation.
Elliot Davis

Very early in the film, young Nat learns to read, the mistress of the plantation having decided to teach him illegally. But the only book he can learn to read from is the Bible — “those books are for white folks,” she tells him, pointing at a shelf of old books.

What happened next shaped Turner’s life. As A.O. Scott put it in his New York Times review, Nat develops a “perverse pastoral calling,” traveling to preach to slaves at the behest of neighboring plantation owners; his master hangs onto the proceeds.

From history, we know that many slave owners used the Bible to justify their human chattel, whether or not they considered themselves “benevolent.” The right to rule was “natural,” drawn from the Scripture. It’s what gave some the license to abuse slaves, even rape them (as the film, significantly, depicts). That this interpretation requires considerable hermeneutic contortions didn’t prevent it from becoming popular.

But the Turner of The Birth of a Nation doesn’t have the benefit of commentaries and books justifying slavery. All he has is the Bible, and from it he determines that there is nothing righteous about a system that allows one man to own and abuse another. As Parker put it to me, “The more he felt that he was at a crossroads with the human beings living around him, the more he had to ask himself, Well, if this book is my tool, and it's no coincidence that I have it, and God is real, then these people can't be right.

In a big sense, the Bible is the central character of the film, and its arc is simply facilitated by Turner.

This is the story of race in America, of religion being used to both remove and restore people’s freedom and agency. It’s the same story that crops up in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, which is the better film, but also focuses on the words of the Bible and their role in the Civil Rights Movement.

This is the story Parker wanted to tell with the film, and with a specific objective: He wanted to call church folk to repentance, in particular for this past national sin. “If Christ was here, how would he react to the misuse and misrepresentation of his name and his actions?” he said to me. “…I, for one, believe that partisanship should have nothing to do with the actions of Christ. You're either Christlike, or you're not.”

Some Christians want the past to stay in the past

But repenting for things is awfully tricky and, perversely, even more tricky for a lot of Christians. I’m familiar with some strains of thinking in American Christianity that characterize wrongdoing as “flaws” that need fixing, and that once you get past them they should stay in the past, and you can just put them in a box and move on, and not ever have to talk or think about or be called to account for them again. Psalm 103:12 is taken as mandate for humans, not a description of God’s ability to forgive. In an odd way, that’s what Parker’s been arguing for himself, while also saying the same behavior keeps America from healing racial wounds.

One example (which, to be clear, does not include allegations of sexual abuse or rape) is disgraced former Seattle megachurch pastor Mark Driscoll, who, 18 years after founding his church, resigned in October 2014 after public criticism and a battery of formal complaints about his leadership style from former staff and congregants — including a history of crude or misogynistic remarks about women. Eight months later, in June 2015, he taped an interview that was broadcast at a major evangelical conference, in which he said, “I made a lot of mistakes … and one of them was going too fast … My character was not caught up with my gifting. I did start too young. I wouldn’t look at any 25-year-old now and say, ‘Yes, do what I did.’”

In other words, I was young then, and now I’m different, and can we just move on already? By February 2016, Driscoll had already announced he was founding a new church plant.

A far more distressing example of this kind of thinking has been surfacing throughout the past few months, as some scrambled for a way to keep supporting Donald Trump as the GOP nominee for president, even up to the release last weekend of a 2005 recording in which he bragged about apparent sexually assault. He issued a rare apology by video, saying, “I’ve said and done things I regret, and the words released today on this more than a decade-old video are one of them. Anyone who knows me knows these words don’t reflect who I am.”

“I said it, I was wrong, and I apologize,” he continued, before launching into an attack on the Clintons before he finished. Since then he and his surrogates have persistently downplayed the whole thing as nothing more than locker room talk.

You’d think the Christians who’d endorsed him in the past would take off running. One prominent voice, the influential theologian Wayne Grudem, this weekend backtracked on his earlier endorsement and called for Trump to resign.

But there were others.

Plenty of Christians are horrified by Trump, but this tiny sample — along with former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani on Face the Nation, who suggested that Trump is “flawed” and then compared him to St. Augustine of Hippo — are joined by a number of others that are similar in that they use the Bible in an attempt to justify something that is plainly reprehensible.

There’s a tricky logic in doing this. On the one hand, for evangelicals, the Bible is considered the ultimate authority, higher than any church leader or tradition. And so an appeal to the Bible is meant to be the conversation-ender. On the other hand, this is an obvious analogue to what The Birth of a Nation is meant to point out: that you can make words do anything, if you squint hard enough. Even if when you step back it’s clear the whole thing is profoundly anti-Christian.

The Birth of a Nation argues that the past can’t stay in the past

I am not suggesting, in any way, that Nate Parker and Donald Trump are the same. To the best of my knowledge, Parker has not exhibited a pattern of this kind of conduct and misogynistic attitudes toward women over his lifetime; part of the reason he’s so convinced the case ought to stay in the past is that it happened a long time ago, and there’s no evidence that he’s repeated the behavior.

Trump, on the other hand, has never stopped. Parker’s motives behind telling the Turner story are, as far as I can tell, genuine, and he seems to be catching on to the role systemic injustice has played even in his own life. Trump, as far as I can tell, has no genuine motives beyond his own bloated ego, and hasn’t given anyone a reason to believe otherwise.

What I am suggesting is that what The Birth of a Nation criticizes is the sort of ugly contortions you can easily see from Trump’s supporters. And to some degree, you can hear these same type of contortions in Parker’s talk of healing and wisdom and morality and being a person of faith.

All of these statements still don’t add up to recognizing openly that he ought to be sorry for what happened. It’s still not really clear he gets that, as with the institution of slavery, injustice is baked into the legal system: Acquittal does not equal innocence, and saying you’re sorry and asking for forgiveness is one of those things that is “more important than the law.”

I think Parker himself voiced what’s needed to me in our interview.

Any psychologist will tell you that healing comes from honest confrontation with our injury or with our past. Whatever that thing is that has hurt us or traumatized us, until we face it head on, we will have issues moving forward in a healthy way.

Nat Turner leads the rebellion.
Nat Turner leads the rebellion.
Elliot Davis

It’s been really strange, watching the reviews of Birth of a Nation come out in the past few weeks. Strange, and good — no movie should be immune to rigor and scrutiny, and especially not one like this. My own critical apparatus has been honed. But, reading the reviews and thinkpieces, you’d mostly believe everyone hated the movie and the reports from Sundance were made up. Birth of a Nation didn’t do as well as some had hoped at the box office, pulling in about $7 million last weekend. (Though one might reasonably wonder how much a bloody movie about a controversial rebellion in which men rape women and black slaves kill white people could have expected to do.)

A number of critics whom I admire are baffled that anyone could have found merit in the film. Some explained early positive reviews as a misplaced search for enlightenment by people who were all too eager to find an easy solution to #OscarsSoWhite and the whitewashing of Hollywood in general, at the cost of art. Some have argued that the film silences black women and messes with Turner’s still-murky history. Plenty of others have decided not to see the film at all, a choice I also can understand.

Many who saw the film knowing about the allegations, quite rightly, read much more into Birth of a Nation’s rape scenes, which take on a very different cast at this point and can’t be avoided. Probably the most biting and important statement came from the sister of Parker’s accuser, who wrote in Variety:

The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify Turner’s rebellion.

This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape.

Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.

Two female characters are raped in the film, and the more graphic scene involves the wife of Turner’s friend Hark, played by Gabrielle Union, who penned her own piece on why she took the part. Turner’s wife Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, also is raped by slave catchers. The rape of enslaved women by white men is well-known history by now, though Turner’s wife isn’t known to be among them.

The Birth of a Nation could still do some good

One of the most scathing recent takes on Birth of a Nation came from Vinson Cunningham at The New Yorker, who is always worth reading. Near the end of the piece, he concludes,

“The Birth of a Nation” is not worth the efforts of its defenders. It’s hard even to call it a successful attempt at propaganda. The early euphoria surrounding the movie was prompted by the way it seemed to answer the demands of its time, sublimating the eye-for-an-eye Old Testament ethos of such fiery agitators as Stokely Carmichael and Elijah Muhammad into the safer precincts of the screen. That fire was checked by a different political imperative: the need to listen to and respect the stories of women who have suffered at the hands of men. The first telling of Turner’s story was prompted by fear—a political force, yes, but also a primal feeling, as palpable today as it was almost two hundred years ago, in Southampton County.

I understand this response, though I disagree that, on balance, the movie is worthless, merely a target for people to figure out how to deal with their rage safely.

Because the thing is: While I scribbled notes about what wasn’t working while watching Birth of a Nation at Sundance, I also was moved. People around me were in tears, and it wasn’t because unsuccessful propaganda was tapping into my need to feel “woke.” It’s because The Birth of a Nation, for better or worse, despite its flaws, worked for me as cinema.

Sitting in a room full of people, experiencing together a story told with passion and fire, one that seems awfully related to the world in which I live in, too, made me feel emotion. Even if it doesn’t live up to what could be. Even if it turns out the film’s backstory is messed up. That’s what movies do. Not everyone has to respond the same way — all we have to bring into the theater is ourselves, including our histories, everything we know, our best judgement — we have to be able to look backward at any movie and try see it for what it was, and maybe what it could be.

The dust will settle on Birth of a Nation eventually. I’m not sure what Nate Parker’s future looks like. I know from just last weekend that we’re a long, long way from a world where sexual assault is taken seriously.

But I still hope, after all these months, that the impulse I felt that first afternoon in the Eccles Theater comes through loud and clear to those who choose go to the film, or who go unaware of the controversy. The most important and even appropriate thing a film like The Birth of a Nation could do now, in the wake of all this mess and morass, is to convince just a few people that just because the Bible is quoted by someone, even a powerful guy with a lot of money and an out-of-control will to power, doesn’t make whatever it’s supporting true, right, or just.

Sometimes I’m convinced the future of the nation depends on it.

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