birth of a nation

Exclusive: Aunjanue Ellis on Nate Parker & the ‘Birth of a Nation’ Controversy

In this exclusive op-ed, the 'Birth of a Nation' star doesn’t mince words about Nate Parker and why she believes audiences should see the film

birth of a nation

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Then came August. First there was the late night text from a journalist friend who asked for my off the record opinion. Then, another other journalist friend wrote an open letter saying she wouldn’t see the film. Another blow came when a podcast I used to listen to every week called it “Django 2” and a “missed opportunity.” And finally, a friend–one my of best–who, when I asked her to come to a screening, hesitated and said, “I will go if you give me a pass, but I don’t want to pay for it.” These are all episodes from my recent tilt-a-whirl journey with The Birth of a Nation.

My feelings of abounding pride and optimism, have at times been replaced by defensiveness, and quite frankly, shame.



I have agonized over how my director, Nate Parker, has handled the fallout of the accusations against him. And before I say another word, I want to make it clear that I grieve for the accuser and her family. I don’t blame them for insisting that the world know what happened to her. And the idea that our movie would cause another woman or family affected by rape further pain has put me to bed in the middle of the day on more than one occasion. We cannot say that our movie seeks to heal the past when we do not acknowledge and show respect to this present pain.

I share the betrayal felt by Black women who are tired of covering Black men who exploit us commercially, but otherwise find us invisible. I get the fatigue of having to constantly choose between an allegiance to race or an allegiance to gender. It is an absurd and unfair choice made by women from Dorothy Height to Elaine Brown, our resistance movements have collapsed from the weight of misogyny and abuse from our most revered freedom fighters.

And Nate’s professed Christianity, which doesn’t seem to allow for forgiveness and grace—given or received—confuses and disaffects those who hear him. It has bred distrust and disdain. And yet, despite all of this, I still believe in Birth of a Nation. I still believe in its rare and transformative power.

Here’s why:

It is not “Django 2”

“Django” of Django Unchained was an invention of a Quentin Tarantino, a White man with a questionable history of racial portraiture (see Pulp Fiction and his almost rapturous use of the word “nigger” in almost every film). Birth of a Nation is about the real life of Nat Turner, a Black man who led a revolt in 1800’s Virginia to end slavery.

The fictional Django freed his wife and burned down the plantation after the plantation owner had been killed by another white man–Christoph Waltz killed Leonardo Dicaprio–not Jamie Foxx. In other words, even in a White man’s fictional portrayal of Black heroism, Black people can’t wrest real power from White men.

Nat Turner, and the men who participated in his rebellion, destroyed not just the plantation but also the plantation owners, crippling their economy and infrastructure. Years before the Civil War, Turner waged war to end slavery in this country. He was an American hero, no less significant than Grant or Lincoln or Chamberlain.

In the White imagination Black people are not heroes, they are victims. Nat turner was no victim. Nat Turner (unlike Django) has no German man helping him. The New York Times writer A.O. Scott diminishes Birth of a Nation in his comparison to Django Unchained by calling it a “rape revenge tale.” It is not.

Let me be clear: Revenge and liberation are not the same. And in its portrayal of Black liberation, Birth of a Nation finally de-centers White men and demands that we reconsider what patriotism looks like, what true American heroism looks like.

19th Century Black Lives Matter Too

In our zeal to build the Black Lives Matter movement it seems that our concern for Black life is limited to contemporary terms. We dismiss the history of Black people who have been enslaved, and by doing so, we once again strip them of their dignity and singularity. Any film narrative about the enslaved is invariably designated as just “another slave movie,” as if it were a sub-genre like romantic comedies or buddy films. It’s insulting.

Yes we should always be hyper-critical of these narratives, particularly when they are created through White lens because barbarism against Black bodies can be its own pornography. But the lives of the enslaved matter, too.

In fact, we cannot fight for reparations and restitution, which are all tenets of the Black Lives Matter movement, without understanding the full historical justification for them— and that justification did not begin in Ferguson in 2013.

There is a disconnect here. We share the videos of police brutality but we dismiss films about the brutality against the enslaved, ignoring that the original police were plantation overseers. It’s a prejudice that is more than embarrassment or shame from perceived weakness; it is judgment. How many times have we heard someone say, “I couldn’t have been a slave” or “That wouldn’t have been me”?

We think of our 21st century selves as superior to our ancestors. It is a bigotry not about skin, but shackles.

Birth of a Nation is an exploration of Black genius not Black flesh. We see the workings of man’s mind as it wrestles with issues of God, theology, Christianity, subjugation, power. We see a man orchestrating, planning, theorizing. We see a man compelled not by abuse but conscience and love.

Perhaps one day when the history of police violence is told, our children will be bored by yet another replay of Philando Castile’s death. They may very well say, “Do we need to see that again? I’m tired of it,” not because it makes them uncomfortable, but it just bores them. It’s hard for us to imagine that now. But please believe that in the imagination of Nat Turner he never would have thought that his suffering and his triumph would be tiresome or boring to those who would one day hear of it.

Every enslaved person has a story that deserves to be told and if we really believe that Black Lives Matter, then we should listen at every opportunity and never use the pejorative term “another slave movie” again.

Human Nature: The Song

Music producer Stan Jones explains the science of why Michael Jackson’s songs are so infectious. He says that he created in a way that the listener’s body will instinctively want to “catch” the rhythms of his beats. So what if, tomorrow, we definitely discovered that he was guilty of the molestation claims against him? What would be our cerebral, moral response? What would be our body’s response? And after the shock has worn off, could we hear “Wanna Be Starting Something” and not move or listen to “PYT” and not smile. You may say, “But MJ was acquitted.” So was Nate Parker.

It is correct that this should discomfit us.

In her op-ed in which she says she will not see Birth of a Nation, author Roxanne Gay says that after hearing the allegations of rape against Bill Cosby, his jokes were no longer funny. Clearly Ms. Gay has the luxury of seeing Mr. Cosby as mere a joke teller. I never had a father in my home, but I had Cliff Huxtable. I looked at Denise Huxtable and became more of the weird kid I was because that character made it not just ok to be weird, but also glamorous. I was never encouraged to go to college, but I wanted to attend college like Cliff Huxtable’s children. I saw Black feminism in Claire Huxtable. I had little in my life but my grandmother’s love, but on Thursday nights, I had possibility. I thank Bill Cosby for this. Bill Cosby, a man accused of multiple rapes.

I thank Miles Davis for “Blue in Green,” “So What,” and “Round Midnight.” Miles Davis, a wife beater and an alleged rapist

We mistake this as paradox or hypocrisy. I disagree. I see it as essential creativity. A man creating what he cannot be himself. The demons of a man or woman can be his/her most effective tool in creating great beauty. Oscar Wild’s point that art is not moral, perhaps is wrong. Maybe it is the only place that morality can exist for an immoral man.

We want our artists to live up to their art insisting on moral binaries of good and bad. Human beings, by nature, are not moral minimalists. We are a bulbous mess. The heft of us stretches and pulls reason. Art like love is not the church of reason. Furthermore, writer Imani Wilson notes that the art of Black people is just another name for the Holy Ghost. The experience of the Black church where on Sundays song and word and rhythms conspire to repair the weekly trauma from racism proves this.

Our art has never been for mere diversion; it has always been for survival. “Wade in the Water” delivered messages between the enslaved about planning escape. “We Shall Overcome” was sung by freedom riders not just in hopes of a better tomorrow but for the practical purpose of hearing and knowing when someone is danger in the act of protest. “Fight the Power,” first sung by the Isley Brothers and then reinvented by Public Enemy, was a call to action. The art of Black people is not and has never been expendable but necessary to fend off certain extinction.

We must also confront our own complicity with misogyny and abuse in art and entertainment. There is no greater example of this need than in our relationship with hip-hop.

As an example, a song like Snoop Dogg’s “It Ain’t No Fun (If the Homies Can’t Have None)” is, in no uncertain terms, is a celebration of gang rape.

One of the lyrics: “I have never met a girl that I loved in this whole wide world”

And Nate Dogg sings it so beautifully that the horrible sentiment comes off as perversely affectionate. This song is revolting. And yet when it plays, I hit a dance floor, even when I’m alone. I am ashamed of myself for doing so. It is an inexplicable experience of shame and joy.

The more banging the bass line, the hotter the hook, the more we forgive hip-hop of its capitalistic contempt for women. With every download, with every press of “play,” we forgive. We canonize rappers, some of them accused of rape (yes Tupac) when they die, ignoring not just the lyrics—“There’s a lot of homies doing time for some little groupie who told a lie”—but the actions of them men who speak them.

If we can forgive hip-hop, then we can forgive Birth of a Nation. There is no such thematic confusion in it. Black men’s love and protection of Black women is its heart, its blood.

Mississippi and Texas

I was raised in an economy predicated on the notion that Black people won’t fight back: the State of Mississippi. I personally know what it’s like to be told to shut up about fighting against the confederacy and that I needed to go to church instead. But scholar Akinyele Umoja’s We Will Shoot Back, tells us communities in southern Mississippi waged armed resistance against the KKK and the police (they were the same) in the early 60’s. This is our history. We have the legacy of Nat Turner living inside of us but it has not been taught to us. Our understanding of ourselves is still limited to laminated photos of George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr. planted on a wall during February.

I respect the principle–if we starve Birth of a Nation—we will sanction Nate Parker then he and others like him will be forced to do and be better. But here is the frustration: Art breathes beyond the artist’s lungs. In this case if we starve the art, we starve that student in Texas who is intentionally taught nothing about who she is in her school curriculums created by bigoted school boards hell bent on false narratives that erase Black self-determination. By starving the art, we starve that student of knowing that they can burn down that system like Nat Turner did and build something better.

Nate Parker has not made an “important film” or a “significant film,” he has achieved something far more essential than that. He has released a holler in the fields, a work song that this moment in our history commands that we sing now, a this moment when we are being killed by the police like zombies in a video game, at this moment when we could elect a raw bigot as president.

By doing so he has nullified the art versus the artist argument. Birth of a Nation ceases to be art and becomes its own rebellion.

And it is time for rebellion in classrooms, courtrooms, churches and police departments all over this country.

It is time.

And I cannot wait for untarnished men.





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