Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a historical drama about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, opens in theaters around the country on Friday in an atmosphere barely resembling its Sundance premiere.
Early acclaim on the festival circuit came with Oscar buzz, as well as Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking $17.5 million deal for worldwide distribution rights to the film. Parker’s story of Turner — a slave and preacher in Southampton County, Virginia, who led the deadliest slave rebellion in America’s history to put an end to slavery — invites a critical reflection on African Americans’ longstanding fight for justice.
But praise for the film came into question once 1999 rape allegations against Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin resurfaced. The news forced prospective moviegoers to reevaluate whether they would see the film — especially when Parker’s publicity campaign seemed hell-bent on making it a non-issue.
Both the movie and the controversy surrounding The Birth of a Nation reflect the times. As a new generation of black people lead a movement for racial justice and Hollywood is under increasing scrutiny for its lack of diversity, Turner’s story, as retold by Parker, provides historical context to the racism that still plagues American society.
Yet evolving understandings of sexual assault and rape, including how the criminal justice system fail victims, have sparked critical discussions about the pressure to separate the art from the artist who maintains his innocence in the eyes of the court and whose art may have been overhyped.
Vox’s Todd VanDerWerff wrote a review of the film at the Toronto International Film Festival. But here are three other ways to learn more about Turner beyond Parker’s film:
- “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” as told by Thomas R. Gray: “Confessions” details Turner’s story as recounted in November 1831 to Thomas R. Gray, allegedly “with little or no variation, from [Turner’s] own words.” Gray was a lawyer from Southampton County, where Turner’s rebellion took place. He was responsible for recording Turner’s statement and providing it to the Southampton County Court. Gray obtained copyright of Turner’s story a day before he was hanged, and published pamphlets to a slave society eager to know Turner’s motivations.
- The National Museum of African-American History and Culture: Turner’s Bible is one of nearly 37,000 items displayed at the Smithsonian’s new museum for African-American history and culture. It just might take a while to see it in person given the high demand for tickets to see the museum.
- Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property: In 2003, director and MacArthur fellow Charles Burnett teamed up with historian Kenneth S. Greenberg and Oscar-nominated documentary producer Frank Christopher for a documentary on how Turner’s story has evolved since the rebellion took place in 1831.