The Birth of A Nation (2016): The Commodification of Black pain…


I just got back from witnessing Nate Parker’s (in his directorial debut), “Birth of a Nation,” the much hyped (loosely based) biopic surrounding the life and death of renegade/revolutionary slave preacher Nat Turner.

For the most part my feelings on the movie are mixed (and that is putting it mildly).

While the film’s director has been mired down in controversy (rape allegations dating back to the 1990’s and some homophobia) none of that stopped “The Birth of A Nation” from becoming the most talked about indie of the year in Tinseltown. Needless to say, despite having my reservations, I would have been completely remiss–as a film lover–to bypass this one.

While the film is marginally good (for a first time director) it missed me primarily because, once again, it was yet another antebellum chattel slave film that seemed to almost revel in Black: misery, pain, torture, and agony.

Please don’t let me be misunderstood. I knew going in, as a Black person, this movie was going to piss me off. As a matter of fact I resigned myself to avoiding white people altogether after the movie was over (seriously, I went into Walmart and rolled my eyes at a white girl that tried to say “Hi.” No, not now Becky. Too soon. Way too soon) for the rest of the day. Chattel slave movies NEVER pull any punches when it comes to the black protagonists suffering. We see it full on sans any obligatory cut away shots. When you think the hapless black victim has had enough always know that they are going to receive MORE, and that you are GOING to witness it up close and personal.

I honestly thought that this one would be different being that “The Birth of A Nation” is about the victims of the barbaric practice rising up and taking a stand against it. However, what this movie left me with was sheer unadulterated disappointment. I received no satisfaction seeing as Nat Turner’s revolution was completely sanitized and all too brief. Just as quickly as it began it was over (approximately ten minutes of the movie was dedicated to the revolt. The other two hours were nothing but copious amounts of black death, rape, and torture). As a viewer I was ready to see some TRUE evil white SUFFERING for the better part of two hours. For once I wanted to see those vile evil masters and mistresses writhe in their death throes. I needed to see them extinguished by the innocent souls that they terrorized for the better part of 500 years (and counting). I wanted to see retribution!

Parker gave me none of that.

What I saw was a movie that caved to white fragility. Apparently after the Sundance film festival Parker sold his soul to get backing for the movie. Either that or he had no soul to lose in the first place? Take your pick but this movie failed so epically in its refusal to mete out pain to the white antagonists.

It isn’t just my imagination when I note that we (as a culture) are so accustomed to Black pain, death, and despair that seeing a man–a black man–literally have his teeth hammered out (shown in graphic detail) is just another movie scene, no forewarning or anything is assigned. Afterwards, the audience was “treated” to a black woman being nearly beaten to death and disfigured by a mob of lascivious white thugs (granted, the event was not filmed but the aftermath surely was). And adding further insult to already egregious injury the audience is subjected to the haunting vocal stylings of Nina Simone on, “Strange Fruit” as black bodies are burned and strung up from trees, all in retaliation for Nat Turner’s uprising…

What do we get when it comes to white death?

Oh that’s easy…

We see whites fall to quick blows in the head. When the most vile and evil white person is to meet his or her end Nate Parker makes certain to do a quick cut away so that we don’t see an actual decapitation or stabbing of a slave master who, quite frankly, deserves to suffer to his last breathe (in front of a cheering audience). Instead, what we get is a villain being allowed to die a beautiful death (i.e. straight ahead to the camera as he quickly fades from blood loss, queue the sad music). Again, we see Black people die ruthlessly and maliciously; but apparently white death is so heinous that the film’s director felt it prudent to shield our eyes from such an atrocity.

Again, hearkening back to a previous point, Turner’s rebellion itself lasted all of six or seven minutes with the final minutes of the film showing turner beaten and hung by a mob of evil whites.

So much for a black revenge story.

In this movie Turner’s vengeance was more less a Pyrrhic victory rather than the catalyst for helping Black people to become free.

As a side note this is part and parcel the reason why systemic racism is still so potent and prevalent. Whereas Black people, out of necessity, have been forced to conform and adapt whites have had absolutely NO reason to cure their collective pathology. They have no reason to as their sickness only harms black people. And once you realize that, as a rule, through out history, that Black life does NOT matter, at all, it is easy to shirk off your role in the racist construct known as the United States of America.

All “The Birth of a Nation” showed me is that Black pain and subsequent death is palatable to consumers. What with the numerous videotaped murders of black people by modern day slave catchers people don’t even have to go to a movie. They can watch the shit on Youtube.

White death (even the deaths of the perverse and animalistic: rapists, torturers, and murderers that made up the antebellum south) on the other hand is worthy of: sorrow, remorse, and reflection.

Again, I was expecting different but unfortunately Nate Parker gave us more of the same.

Moreover, I disliked the use of the female characters as plot devices to spur Turner’s insurrection. I would imagine the horror of slavery, in and of itself, caused Nat to rise up and say, “No More.” However, that was not reflected in this film.

Again, my feelings are mixed on this one but I’m going to have to give “Birth of A Nation” a C-.

Excellent debut for a first time auteur but it fails woefully in its execution of a salient real life event.

Prince Charmingly Petty.


One thought on “The Birth of A Nation (2016): The Commodification of Black pain…

  1. Got into it with some black folks who felt this one should’ve been feted at that awards show over the runner-up, er, winner of Best in Show. I, too, was underwhelmed by BOAN, but in a way that was less about the substance of the film, and more about the stylistic and directorial choices of the way the story was presented. Now, I’m rethinking the balance of the violence that was displayed on screen as result of your piece. And that’s provocation of thought which is acceptable, & necessary to comment (on).


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