The Birth of a Nation

Why Nate Parker’s “The Birth of A Nation” is the Biggest Clapback Hollywood Has Ever Seen

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Is Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” just another “slave” movie? Or is this a film about Black folks stopping at nothing to acquire their freedom, even if it meant murdering white master enslavers?

Roots pic

When Roots premiered in 1977, I was a mere fetus growing inside of my mama’s womb. So my memory of actually watching it on television wouldn’t be for another several years. But prior to watching Roots, I had already read about Toussaint L’Ouverture and Denmark Vesey. The information with which I was equipped, afforded me a luxury not given to the average Black child – my self narrative was informed by a well-rounded discourse about  the people from whom I came. My heritage was not synonymous with inferiority but with courage and strategic resistance.

W.E.B. du Boi's 1938 production "Haiti"

For many years, what narratives and images have our parents, ourselves and our children had of history?  Especially any history involving people of African descent? Cotton fields, whips, and chains, lynchings, segregated buses, water hoses, police dogs and burning crosses only to be replaced by the minstrel shows that are contemporary reality television and viral contemporary videos of police sanctioned murders of Black people on social media.

I do suffer from a specific kind of slavery movie fatigue: visual images of us being brutalized, raped, subjugated, because they often lack the full spectrum of the sheer horror as well as resistance that occurred during one of the darkest moments in human history. I don’t need to see more visual images of our physical oppression, none of us do.  I will NEVER grow tired, however, of movies that depict our courage, tenacity, and audacious gall to kick master’s ass!

slavery-uprising

There’s so much that we don’t know about our history, which has often been skewed. Abraham Lincoln gave us our freedom or nah? How about nah. How about our freedom came as a result of the tireless socio-political and guerrilla movements and campaigns led by people of African descent throughout the Caribbean, South America and the U.S. American South, the first of which, was the 1791-1804 Insurrection of Saint Domingue.

Haitian Heroes by Ulrich Jean-Pierre
Haitian Heroes by Ulrich Jean-Pierre

If it weren’t for the success of Boukman, Toussaint, Dessalines, Henri Christophe and countless Africans whose names we may never know, we may still be enslaved. That single victory, against the world’s most powerful nation, was unparalleled. At the time of Napoleon’s defeat, his military was the greatest superpower in the world (the equivalent of the U.S. military circa 2000). Yet, he was defeated by enslaved Africans who took up machetes and beat that ass (a historical narrative from which my father finds much pleasure), so much so that the French Empire was forced to sell Louisiana to the U.S. in attempts to save the nation which went bankrupt thanks to the war of Saint Domingue. And despite many painful and unsuccessful attempts by Danny Glover to tell this story or the recent French production of Toussaint, there has yet to be a film truly depicting that great moment in history. The closest thing we’ve seen of realistic Black insurrection was the opening scene of Feasts of All Saints. And that was only for a mere few minutes. Until that is, until Nate Parker put his acting career on hold to make his unprecedented film.

Beyond what the creation of this film signifies, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is a brilliant clap back to the horrific impact of the original The Birth of a Nation, a 100 years later. D. W. Griffith’s 1915 film is still heralded as the greatest contribution to modern cinema. A fictitious film about what would happen to the country if Black people were allowed to retain power during Reconstruction, it was the impetus for the Summer of 1919, also known as the Red Summer, in which entire all-Black towns were burned down, dozens of African Americans were lynched, shot to death and burned at the stake by mobs of All-American white citizens. Despite its extremely damaging and white supremacist ideology, the film is still taught in contemporary film programs and broadcast on public television. Jacking that title and thus rewriting its history is clever, cunning and appropriation at its finest!

D.W. Griffith's 'A Birth of A Nation'
D.W. Griffith’s ‘A Birth of A Nation’
Black men in Chicago in 1919, stood in resistance against white mobs.
Black men in Chicago in 1919, stood in resistance against white mobs.

I wasn’t able to attend Sundance this year but from what I’ve heard from my friends who were there and after watching Nate Parker’s compelling Q&A, it seems to me that people who were clapping the loudest were in fact, US. And not passive us. The very radical, very progressive, very Black us.

"River Queen" from Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Renee Cox, 2004
“River Queen” from Queen Nanny of the Maroons, Renee Cox, 2004

So sorry naysayers, give me Nat Turner. Give me Toussaint. Give me Dessalines. Give me Nanny. Give me Zumbi. Give me Boukman. Give me Tula. Give me 1811. Give me the Saamaka. Give me Sojourner. Give me Denmark. Give me Harriet on the big screen…any day, any year from now until forever.

– Shantrelle P. Lewis

A list of several other heroic rebellion independent films that precede Nate Parker’s Birth of A Nation:

Haile Gerima’s Sankofa (1993)

Besouro (2009)

Touissant Louverture (2011)

Tula (2013)

Quilombo (1984)

Njinga – Queen of Angola (2013)

 

NOTES: Bka Other Thoughts That Didn’t Fit in the Above Text

  1. And since we’re on the topic of slavery, can we please stop using the term “slave” in reference to our ancestors. They were Africans, who were enslaved, transported during the Middle Passage and forced into free labor, worked in work camps, owned by master enslavers, our fine nation’s first capitalists. Using the word “slave” reinforces the misconception that for some unimaginable reason, Black people are somehow more equipped for pain and brutality. That is not the case. We bleed. We agonize. We experience post traumatic stress. We suffer from depression and sometimes we are driven mad when white supremacy and its legacy breaks the thin threshold that keeps sanity in tact. So please, for the sake of our children, and for the millions of people who experienced enslavement and its aftermath, and the millions of people left behind on the continent, please stop calling all of those men, women and children slaves. Our ancestors were enslaved Africans who built this country and many others in the Caribbean and Latin America, off of whose labor wealthy western nations are still prospering. I credit my graduate education at Temple for shifting this use of language (TUMF!) and my further introduction to some of this terminology to Dr. Stephen Small
  2. I was five years old the first time I read about the Haitian Revolution. It was one of several epic tales of Black heroism published in a children’s book titled Shining Legacy: A Treasury of Storypoems and Tales for the Young So Black Heroes Forever Will Be Sung written by Nkechi Taifa. I remember how intrigued I was by the characters that greeted me in those pages. Touissant L’Ouverture. Cinque. Marcus Garvey. Rosa Parks. Malcolm X.
  3. It wouldn’t be until the 2nd grade that my classmates and I were introduced to excerpts about Black history during February; most of which involved cotton fields and slave ships, whips and chains – dark, ugly and sobering details about a past that many of us would have rather forgotten or not learned about all. I didn’t shrink from this history, however, because I had already been equipped with perpendicular information about the people who survived this hell and the tactics they used to resist. My understanding of history didn’t begin with tales of subjugation, but tales of rebellion. No wonder I was introducing my 9th grade classmates to the autobiography of Assata Shakur on our first day of school. Unlike many of my peers, my knowledge of self had been informed many years prior thanks to the books laden with accounts of self-determination and valor. My groundedness and healthy self esteem not only came from the pride my parents instilled in me but the books that they placed in my hands.
  4. I’m not so sure that Nate Parker had white audiences in mind when he made this film. Especially considering risk he took by turning down other roles until he made his own film. This film. He was very intentional about his audience. A Birth of a Nation was without a doubt made for us.
  5. I have hated watching slavery movies, but that hasn’t stopped me from going to see them. Whether 12 Years a Slave or Django. Speaking of which, one of the reasons why my Tistah, Dr. Yaba Blay and I were hooping and hollering behind Tarantino’s suped up Black superman story not because the movie was another visual representation of us being brutalized but because it was a story of revenge as much as it was a story of love. I’ve never seen a Black man go as hard for his woman on any silver screen like Django galloping on that horse, bareback, into the pits of hell, to rescue the love of his life, a Black woman. But I digress.

Shout out to Junot Diaz for giving me the space to be great in this footnote section! 

That blue suit!!
That blue suit!!
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9 Comments

    • Same here Jasmine! Thanks for reading. This is an abbreviated, I had so much to say on the topic, but cut it short when I realized it was NOT a dissertation. LOL.
      – Shantrelle

  1. Thank you for your article! Thank you for writing enslaved Africans! Also by using the word slave it denotes that we were willing participants, like we signed up for this job. Not the case. Also, you may want to check out information about the black Seminole and Seminole Indians who fought together in the First and Second Seminole War agains the the US government. The black Seminole did not wait for their freedom, they fought for it. I did my MA on the ethnogensis of the black Seminole so feel free to email me about any additional information about them.

    • Thanks so much Mary Lou! One of the first things I learned as a grad student at Temple’s Dept. of AAS, was the difference between slave and enslaved. I have also learned much about the Seminoles. I ever need to dig deeper, I will most certainly reach out. I have a curatorial project about The Contemporary American Black South and that’s a significant aspect of our history. And FYI, if you’d like to contribute a piece about your research and the Seminoles, feel free to do so! We’d love to post it.
      – Shantrelle

  2. I am excited about this movie! Great article! I LOVED seeing the picture of my great- Uncle Jessie Binga’s Bank in Chicago included as well!!!

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