Let me be clear. I don’t think there are too many films about slavery–in fact, there aren’t enough. And like actress and activist Aunjanue Ellis said earlier this month at the Toronto International Film Festival, I agree that dismissively calling narratives about our enslaved ancestors “slave movies” strips our predecessors of their humanity all over again. In her words:
“Imagine, you’re from Virginia and two hundred years ago a woman who was your great, great, great, great grandmama was thinking, not of a better life for herself because she knew it wasn’t going to happen, but thinking of a better life for her posterity. And looking at the moon and the stars and thinking, ‘One day I may not see it, but my grandchildren or great grandchildren are going to look up at that moon and not look down at shackles on their feet,’” Ellis told a small group of Black journalists. “Did she ever believe that her story would be boring to her children? That her story wouldn’t be worth telling? We have let that woman down if we don’t want to see that.”
Indeed, films that explore the full dimension of the Black experience in America–yes, even the ugly, painful parts–are necessary and should be welcomed, as Ellis passionately argued. But calling on folks to support some of these projects on the strength of the race alone–not for their adept storytelling or historical importance–isn’t the way to go either.
And yet, that is what many are doing in advance of the nationwide opening of The Birth of a Nation.
The campaign to get moviegoers into theaters to see Nate Parker’s award-winning film about Nat Turner has reached critical mass. After electrifying audiences back in February at the Sundance Film Festival and scoring a record-breaking $17.5 million acquisition deal from Fox Searchlight, the film became an early favorite for awards season. Critics heralded the production—which Parker wrote, directed, and starred—as an Academy Award contender, arguing it could end the streak of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. But after a 1999 rape allegation levied against Parker and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin found its way back into the mainstream media coverage, the positive hype surrounding the film quickly devolved into controversy.
Initially, Parker’s own words about the story seemed to do little more than inflame the public. During EBONY’s exclusive interview with the actor and director back in August, even he admitted he initially came off as uncaring and arrogant. After a period of intense soul-searching and conversations with friends like Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor herself, Parker said he realized why many found his initial statements inadequate.
“I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive,” Parker said during that interview.
In the weeks following those words of contrition, anger toward Parker seemed to die down a bit, with some praising the actor for admitting that his ideas around consent when he was a teen were problematic.
The tide around the controversy seemed to be turning. When Birth—and the cast, including Parker—received a two-minute standing ovation during its opening night at the Toronto International Film Festival, the negative headlines surrounding the film seemed to die down. Aside from a few questions during the film’s TIFF press conference about the incident, the vibe coming out of Toronto was that the promotion of the film seemed back on track, and Fox Searchlight felt like–all things considered–it went well.
But now, instead of talking about the powerful narrative, the masterful performances, or the beautifully shot film, some on social media and beyond are pressuring Black folks to see Birth of a Nation to send Hollywood a message. Despite Parker not even buying into the notion that there is a vast conspiracy to keep folks away from the film, some have suggested “they”–I suppose White folks?–don’t want the story of Nat Turner to be told.
They don't want you to see The Birth of a Nation though….
— jesse Williams. (@iJesseWilliams) September 22, 2016
I agree with Jessie Williams. Go see "Birth of a Nation" not for Nate Parker but for the damn message. They don't want you to see it.
— Hollywood (@ScottHuego) September 22, 2016
Here’s the problem with this theory. If “they” didn’t want people to see the film, I’m sure “they” wouldn’t have spent millions of dollars buying it, and millions more marketing it to the masses (and as I’m writing this, a commercial for the film just came on TV). If “they” didn’t want young Black people to learn about Nat Turner, they wouldn’t send Birth’s stars around the globe to talk about the film to anyone who’ll listen.
So, “they” are not the problem–we are.
I saw Birth of a Nation before the controversy erupted, so my view of the film, and its brutally relentless storytelling, was not tainted by the rape allegation, Parker’s clumsy statements, or this unofficial push to shame Black folks into supporting the film just because it tells a Black story.
Did I love the film? Absolutely. Would I recommend it to others? Definitely. Do I think Black folks who don’t want to see it for whatever reason are letting Nat Turner and the whole of Black America down?
Not at all.
Attempting to guilt Black folks into seeing a movie is problematic, but it’s also not new. When George Lucas made Red Tails–his passion project about the Tuskegee Airmen– we were told Hollywood didn’t want to throw its money behind a positive Black story, so we should rally around the film to send a message. The same goes for Tyler Perry’s take on For Colored Girls. Ditto for TV efforts such as the new Roots reboot. And if we’re keeping it all the way 100, the same could be said for basically every Black film to hit theaters in the last 30 years.
Bottom line is: somehow Black folks are always burdened with proving to Hollywood that our stories matter–whether they’re good Black stories or not. And that is a backhanded insult to Black writers, directors, and filmmakers.
In the case of Birth of a Nation, racial pride isn’t even the most compelling reason to see the film. First, it’s good. It’s so good–and different from other narratives dealing with slavery–critics were fawning over it at Sundance and the moviegoers in my screening had visceral reactions throughout the film. And while it’s emotionally draining to see Black people brutalized on screen, I didn’t walk out of the theater feeling depressed, but rather full of pride because of our ancestors’ ability to resist in spite of all of the obstacles set in their way.
Birth of a Nation is a story of oppression and rebellion, but tucked inside the script that exposes the inhumanity of slavery we see Black folks living, loving each other fully and completely, and making a way. We see caring Black families, we see romance, we see powerful Black women, we see men who lay down their lives for freedom. We see a complex picture of Black life in the Antebellum South, something that is sorely lacking on screen.
There are a multitude of reasons to see Birth of a Nation–Parker risked his career (and all of his money) to make it; the actors virtually worked for free, instead agreeing to be paid on the backend if the film was successful; Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife Cherry, is simply magnificent; there is (thankfully) no White savior; and most importantly, it’s good.
If those reasons aren’t compelling enough to get Black folks to cinemas come October 6, then so be it. But leave the shame game alone.