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'The Birth of a Nation' Makes Visible a Movement That Can't Wait

Colman Domingo and Nate Parker in The Birth of a Nation (2016)

The Birth of a Nation, troubling and aspirational, exposes the need for intersectionality, now.


The Birth of a Nation

Director: Nate Parker
Cast: Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Junior, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Tony Espinosa
Rated: R
Studio: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Year: 2016
US date: 2017-01-20 (General release)
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"Intersectionality is a beautiful thing."

-- Rebecca Theodore-Vachon, A Love Letter to Black Women: Cheo Hodari Coker & the Gender Dynamics of 'Luke Cage'"

"I knew this day would come." Cherry (Aja Naomi King) is lying in bed, near the end of Birth of Nation. She's married to Nat Turner (Nate Parker), the preacher and slave whose many struggles have been the film's focus. As the camera cuts between her bruised face and his, you see her in close-up and him from across her prone body, battered by a gang rape a few scenes earlier. As Nat wonders what to do, whether to stay with his wife or leave, in order to lead his famous rebellion, Cherry says what she must, gasping through her injuries: "If the Lord's calling you to fight, you fight," she asserts, invoking their young daughter. "You fight for me and Joanna. You fight for us all."

He does, of course, in a brutal montage, Nat and his fellows carrying axes and hoes against white men armed with rifles and cannons. Like Cherry, you know this brutal end will come, and you see lots of climactic violence in this montage, leading to Turner's martyrdom, when he's hanged in front of a lurid crowd of bloodthirsty white people and he looks up to a celestial light. Before this, you've seen slaves abused, force-fed, deformed, and whipped, the damage to their bodies and the agony on their faces animating your desire for Nat's revenge.

Styled as Nat Turner's revenge, The Birth of a Nation focuses on his responses, leaving off screen events he doesn't experience directly, for example, Cherry's rape (you see her menaced by Nat's longtime nemesis, the runaway slave chaser Cobb [Jackie Earle Haley] looming in a close-up, his whiter-than-white face a familiar metonym for the fundamental atrocity of slavery) or that of Esther (Gabrielle Union), who silently endures the demands of a white man inside a house while her husband Hark (Colman Domingo) and Nat wait outside.

Such focus on Nat Turner's experience at the expense of others creates a set of common representational problems, not least being the use of women's bodies to drive yet another man's plot.

But The Birth of a Nation comes into view at a time when such familiarity is a problem in itself. Consider the film's multiple contexts, from its sale for a record-breaking deal at Sundance to the revelation that story co-writers Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin were charged with rape in 1999, when they were students at Penn State, the movie has swirled in a high-profile marketing storm. On one hand, the movie has been applauded as another example of the industry's embrace of stories and stars of color, and the other, the movie's makers have been grappling with the rape story.

Parker has made awkward efforts to indict "the media" for attending to the 1999 story, claiming that he was "vindicated". This leaves it to co-stars King and Union to address the rape that serves as their movie's culmination of terrors, and moreover, the rape culture that neither Parker nor his film can illuminate. King is talking about historical contexts, specifically, Cherry's "murky", because undocumented, role as Turner's inspiration or collaborator. Union, an outspoken rape survivor, is reframing the film (and her own Op-Ed reflection) on the need for broad education on rape), as steps in an ongoing "movement".

Union's real-life efforts to transform Esther's fictional silence into a conversation are crucial to understand the movie as well as its political and cultural contexts. Birth of a Nation offers scenes that echo Black Lives Matter, illustrating legacies of oppression and resistances to oppression. And yet, oppression remains in place as the film's own clichés, including an episodic structure that makes Nat's trajectory look too simple and too tritely heroic.

He first appears as a child (Tony Espinosa), shepherded by his mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis, in a magnificent performance) and described by body-painted spiritual leaders as bearing "the holy marks of our ancestors". When the film shows these to be literal marks on his chest, you and the boy tend to believe as well that he is a "leader" and a "prophet". As he pursues his destiny, Nat is supported by resilient women, from his grandmother (Esther Scott), who knows how to trick stupid white men, and his owner's wife, Elizabeth (Penelope Ann Miller), who teaches him to read the Bible. That Nat is also haunted recurrently by a scene he sees early on, a black girl led on a leash by a white one, makes clear the film's interest in the suffering of women and girls' and how it effects him.

It's too easy to say that this might have been a different movie if, for instance, the women lived more detailed lives in it and served less as occasions for Nat's transitions. But it's the movie it is because of the time and handed-down history that produced it. Just so, Nat's primary relationship on screen is the complex, perpetually contradictory one he shares with Elizabeth's son Sam (Armie Hammer). They play together as children, then lurch into an impossible imbalance when they become adults. Nat, much like his grandmother, tricks the white man when he can, e.g., smitten by Cherry when he sees her at a slave auction, Nat cajoles Sam into buying her.

The inevitable impasse of their relationship erupts when Sam starts taking Nat around to preach to other owners' slaves. Explicitly traumatic for everyone but the owners who believe their property is submissive, these scenes pan miserable faces and ruined bodies, images that drive Sam to drink and Nat to reread his Bible, where he finds language extolling all men's freedoms rather than some men's subjugation. Nat sees himself anew, which means Sam has to, as well.

Where and how you see this new understanding likely depends on your own history. If The Birth of a Nation's understanding of Sam and Nat's codependence is not so astute as that in 12 Years a Slave, a film to which it can't help but be compared, it does pose a series of crucial questions concerning what can be seen. These questions have to do with intersections -- of institutions and individuals, of stories repeated and stories untold -- that shape the ways cultural monstrosities produces despicable behaviors.

While The Birth of a Nation exposes these intersections, it doesn't take on the complexities or the beauty of "intersectionality", as Rebecca Theodore-Vachon phrases it. She's talking about another text, Luke Cage, which intersects with The Birth of a Nation in time, as both come into mass cultural focus simultaneously. Both tell stories of black male heroes, of black bodies in crisis and black lives that matter. Both also contend with black women's stories. But where The Birth of a Nation relies on well-worn conventions, where women's plots support a man's, Luke Cage works in a kind of reverse, using the male hero to focus attention on women.

This may be a good trick on the white industry, but more importantly, it spells out what intersectionality means and also, as Kimberlé Crenshaw argues, why, again and still, the work of intersectionality "can't wait." If The Birth of a Nation does nothing else, it inspires more of this work, work that will lead to another day we know must come.

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