As the controversial The Birth of a Nation movie continues to be released to theaters around the world and as critics discuss the best movies of 2016 during this current awards season (the film was also released on DVD this month), guest contributor Omilani Alarcón, reflects on the message this film sends.
Watch trailer below:
A stack of crumbled paper is piled beside me. As I write this, staring out of my window in a town outside of Orocovis, in South-Central Puerto Rico, I am thankful for the lush green blankets of nature that surround me and the majestic mountains standing guard like soldiers of these lands. This environment has really cooled me down. In fact, the truth is, I needed some distance before writing this; I needed to be outside of the mainland context, needed to be distanced from the headlines and the fiery cacophony of ‘feels’ this current US political climate is giving me right now. I needed Nat Turner to be right and not to be represented in the film as a haunting echo of the past transporting me to the painful reality of complacency today. I just needed clarity before I spoke my first impressions, which will be interwoven in this text.
I make a pyramid out of my crumbled paper and knock them down like bowling balls. Things are not always what they seem.
There are many reasons why I love being Black! We are a passionate people – we loooove what we love and when we hate it – look out!! Just follow what has now been deemed “Black Twitter”. While I jump from being amused to enraged and sometimes join in on the social media wave, I also understand that we have to go beyond the 140 characters and dig deeper.
As a Black woman, Latinegra, filmmaker with an understanding that it is not always easy for us to get opportunities, funding, and distribution – I initially thought beyond Nate Parker. I thought about the actors and actresses who needed the support, I wondered if there was a powerful message Nat Turner would have wanted us to receive. Finally, I don’t take the allegations of rape lightly, but I was curious about the timing of the uproar. Was it a set up? Did they want to keep us from seeing something in the film that may inspire us?
I put all the questions aside, took it old school and had a date night at the drive-in theater. Thank goodness for that, because by the end of the movie, I was throwing popcorn at the screen (i.e. my car window shield). A lot of people are giving the movie great reviews and that terrifies me. Someone posted that they were in a theater full of White people watching the movie and they gave it a standing ovation, equally frightening, and that makes me wonder where is the mentality of people. While I did enjoy the African music, the African spirits in the woods, and reference to the ancestors, all of the rest left me feeling empty and uninspired.
It is no secret that art is an imitation of life and vice-versa. Historically, art has been used as a tool to influence public opinion. Post emancipation, there were a combination of advertisements to both say that people of African descent were happier enslaved or to paint a picture of Afrodescendientes as wild beasts, to prove there was a need to tame them.
Later, there was more of a plea for hysteria in movies such as King Kong (1933). Did you know King Kong was supposed to represent interracial relationships with the wild ape representing a Black man, terrifying, wild and beastly – juxtaposed with fragile, dainty Ann who needed to be saved from savage hands of a ravaged ape? Fast forward a couple of decades and film is still influencing public perception.
Today in a time of Black Lives Matter and an insane amount of police brutality murdering Black/Brown people, there are a number of films about “cool cops” and “good cops”. There are series such as 21 and 22– Jump Street, Ride Along, Bad Boys, and to a certain extent even the popular Netflix series Luke Cage is about cops/former cops fighting crime in Harlem. Social media and the news is always covering stories about how the police like to go play basketball in the ‘hood or volunteer to counteract the depiction of them choking these same babies when they grow up and are crushed by a heavy blue weight when they can’t breathe.
Not only are we inundated with police flicks, this decade seems to be the season of “Slave Theater”. Although I abhor the term “slave”, it seems like the film industry would like to keep our imaginations enslaved and not let us forget the 1800s. For whatever reason, people ‘hated’ Django Unchained (2012) and loved 12 Years a Slave (2013).
You can look at the movie posters and tell the difference between the story lines – a free Black man, unchained vs. a Black man in need of a White Savior to lead him to freedom after he learns the lesson that no matter how free and successful you may be, you can easily and always become a slave. What is the message these movies leave with their audiences?
Back to the original subject – The Birth of a Nation – given the original context, the movie title seems to be befitting. The original film (1915) is credited with inspiring a second wave of the Ku Klux Klan. Fueled by stereotypes of Black men as uneducated and predators of White women, the film sparked a series of violence and violent publicity–demonizing Black people to maintain a racist system of inequity. The 2016 version 101 years later perpetuates similar stereotypes.
The main character, Nathaniel, is depicted as the exception to the rule of the classic stereotype of Black people as uneducated/untamable. From young, he was identified as a promising Negro, taught to read at an early age and used as a tool on the plantations to give leverage to a suffering slave owner who needed to raise money by loaning out Nat to neighboring plantations as a preacher. Movie-version-Nat acquiesced to his privilege until he saw his wife get raped.
Real-life-Nat is said to either have been a religious fanatic who truly believed it was a spiritual endeavor to free himself and his people or that he was a person fed up and propelled by a mission to fight against the injustices of slavery by any means necessary.
Among the many embellishments and historic inaccuracies in the film, one of the biggest disappointments and unnecessary confabulations of the story of Real-life-Nat was the conclusion of the film.
It shows Movie-version-Nat going to greet his wife on the plantation, after a night of killing off the slave masters and going to war, then sadly getting slaughtered on the battle grounds. He gives his wife a message of love and goes to the busiest part of town with his hands in the air to just give up and surrender. Real-Life-Nat fought to the end. He hid out for 9 weeks and on October 31, 1831, he was captured by Benjamin Phipps. Some accounts say he was hiding behind a pile of debris and lumber and someone spotted him and told his whereabouts.
The movie ends with hero music playing as he goes to be lynched. Young White girls are yelling something akin to “Hang that n—!” and the little Black boy who sold him out is next to where they lynch him with a single tear in his eye. Movie-version-Nat apologetically accepts his lynching and the scene fades from the young sell-out to an older version of the sell-out who still tearfully fights for the US military with an American flag waving in the background.
The movie sends the message that if you Rebel or go against the system you will be slaughtered and hung. However, slavery, although harsh and painful, will keep you alive. It also sends the message that there are contradictions in the Bible, but like the White enslaver said, it doesn’t matter what you read into it, as long as you stick with the message.
More than just reading deeper into these films, we have to understand what makes us like or dislike what we see and “stick with the message”. This is especially important to consider as we are moving into an era nostalgic of the past and a desire to “Make America Great Again”. History repeats itself and if you look around and keep your eyes wide open, all the signs are clear.
Omilani Alarcón is a graduate of Cornell University in Ithaca, NY. She holds a dual Bachelor’s degree in Romance Literatures & Language (BA French/ BA Spanish). She graduated summa cum laude and upon graduation, immediately embarked upon a Fulbright Hays-Group Project Abroad in Nigeria where she studied the Yoruba language at Obafemi Awolowo University.
Ms. Alarcón is a visual and performing artist, poet, scholar and has over eight scholarly publications, five musical CDs, and was in the top 7 GRAMMY Showcase Finalists. She currently teaches French Language & Literature and has traveled and studied business, languages, and performing arts in Europe, Africa, the Caribbean and the Americas.