Fox Searchlight Pictures
[***If you’ve read any articles about this movie, there are no spoilers. Also, Nat Turner dies at the end. That is also not a spoiler.***]
Last night, I saw The Birth Of A Nation (BOAN), the story of slave revot leader Nat Turner, helmed in every part by Nate Parker of Peak Fuckboy fame. For that reason, I was on the fence about seeing it but the truth is I wanted to see the movie as Nat Turner has always been a subject of immense fascination to me (I was one of the folks rocking Nat Turner University t-shirts back in the 1990s), and I also wanted to be able to talk about the movie. I figure that with all of the well-earned negative press Nate Parker is getting, especially in Black circles, at some point, talking about the actual movie would need to happen. Of course, it comes out nationally on Friday, October 7th, so I imagine the discussion would shift then, but if I had to wait until then, I’d have had to pay to see it.
I rebel against paying for movies.
1. I was somewhat disappointed in this movie. Here’s why: Because of all of the early press and the record setting $17.5 million price tag attached, I actually thought we might be getting a game-changing movie. The fact that it was about Nat Turner was icing on the cake to me. Despite the negative press, I went into the MOVIE with fairly high expectations, and they weren’t met, almost anywhere. Don’t read that as it’s a bad movie; it’s not. It’s just not the movie I expected. I was looking for a movie with significant depth into the psyche of a man who struck the fear of God into white America with God at his side in the 1800s.
I expected a galvanizing movie, especially amidst the times we live in. I expected to be moved in a way that I was moved at 12 Years A Slave, except moreso because this time we fight back. 12 Years was a movie so jarring that I truly hope to never see it again. I could watch BOAN again, and not with any type of “gotchabitch” towards overseers like in say, Django Unchained, but just as a movie about man who had too much. Not that I’d watch it over and over, but it just didn’t have an emotional impact on me the way I expected.
2. I often find it hard to reconcile how kid gloves soft we treat some of these white savior slave owners in these movies. BOAN features more “somewhat good whites” slavers whose moral dissonance was on display in a sympathetic manner. There’s nothing like seeing the white slaver being nice-ish and actively being uncomfortable with treatment of other slaves…while being a slaver himself because economics. I just don’t really buy the “some of these folks were good people at heart trapped in a time where the social order of things dictated a racial violence hierarchy.” Those white folks were trash. Plain and simple.
3. This movie was nowhere near as graphic as I expected. I don’t know if I’m desensitized to depictions of violence, but I expected to see blood everywhere and I didn’t. I even thought that the two instances of rape mentioned in articles I’ve read would be uncomfortable. But that’s because I expected actual violence. I realize they could be triggering as presented, I just expected them to be aggressive, and not implied. You know it happened, but we were treated to the before and the after. We were spared the violent actions of them. The Roots remake was more graphic. To be clear, I’m not saying that I wanted to see those things, what I am saying is that I’ve read articles speaking of those scenes, and specifically of Gabrielle Union and how she handled it given her history, and well, I was just surprised. Even the killing scenes were fairly tame. I’m not saying it was The Chronicles of Narnia, but definitely not as much gore as one might expect of a movie depicting a slave revolt where babies were killed and it was all done with knives, axes, and mallets.
4. If not for the negative press, I feel like Nate Parker would win the Best Actor award at the Oscars. He put his entire ass into this acting role. I realize that nobody cares, and that’s fair. I’m just pointing out what seem like facts. It almost seems like he truly prepared his entire acting life for this role and movie. The Academy isn’t exactly full of people looking to make a point or statement, so I imagine Nate Parker will be nominated but I’d be very, very surprised if he were to win. I’d also imagine the boos and backlash would be swift and Twitterific.
5. Despite what I said about being somewhat disappointed, it’s a well done movie. Great care was taken in several arenas with the directing. Parker clearly cares a great deal about this movie and how it was presented. Damn shame he didn’t feel that way about his own presentation. Sometimes I feel like Chris Brown is his PR manager.
6. I feel like they took some fairly substantial liberties with parts of the movie, namely Nat Turner as a person. It’s been a while since I read The Confessions of Nat Turner, and it is entirely possible that the account of Nat Turner could be entirely fabricated, but they made this version of him seem a bit, warmer and less religiously fanatical that I’ve always thought him to be. Yes, he was a preacher and had been deemed a prophet at an early age, but he seemed more…normal? I’m not sure what the right term is. My predilection towards Nat was always one of a man motivated by God and principle, purely. He wasn’t a man of many luxuries or emotions. Also, the entirety of the movie takes place with Nat Turner being the property of Samuel Turner, whereas historically, Samuel Turner died and Nat and his family were separated and sold to separate slaveowners. For the sake of the movie, I guess those details aren’t AS important as the message, but it was noteworthy. Similarly, his capture doesn’t align with his own words. Again, assuming what was told to his lawyer was presented fairly and I guess it doesn’t change the story. Just noticeable.
7. I’m not sure where I stand on how “important” this movie is. It’s important in that exists and the more narratives we have the better and a movie about Nat Turner definitely matters to me. I’m not against further slave movies because there are millions of stories gone untold. I understand why others might not want to see anymore though. However, this movie was framed as being of significant importance, especially given our current climate, and I’m not sure the execution managed those expectations. Don’t get me wrong, it wasn’t Red Tails, a cinematic failure on every possible level and levels I didn’t know existed. But part of BOAN’s import was in its flashpoint harnessing of the rage of a people who had had enough and with God as their witness, reached the end of their rope. Except I don’t think you’d see this movie and feel ready to rise up. I was more emotional after watching Rosewood. I honestly think that the greatest legacy of this movie will be in its title. Clearly on purpose, from here on out, searching for Birth Of A Nation is likely to yield this movie as opposed to the 1915 racist movie of the same name. Fuckboy shenanigans aside, that is a win.
8. You know how when you go to see slave movies and people are either eerily silent (12 Years A Slave) or uproarious (Django Unchained) in parts? I felt like this movie was going to have more of the latter with people yelling at the screen and being “Black power” when the revolt happened. And I didn’t get that. Which I found interesting. This goes back to it’s impact; folks watched it and when it was over mostly kept it moving. I remember walking out of 12 Years A Slave and everybody was quiet. It was the closest to #distewmuch I’ve ever actually been in my life. I expected that here and I mostly wanted to go to Chik-Fil-A for a spicy chicken sandwich after. I didn’t need to process. I wonder how most other folks felt, but the conversations I intentionally listened to after weren’t as pensive or angry as I expected. I’m not sure what to do with that, but I noticed and am sharing.
9. I read this review in the New Yorker by Vinson Cunningham this morning after seeing a comment about the screening from Bene Viera on Facebook. This review is about as good as its going to get. Seriously. It gets to the crux of it all and touches on everything related to the movie and its release. However, the one area I disagree with, is the idea of the ravaging of Black women’s bodies being the incitement to action, as if taking a man’s pride through his woman is a bridge too far. While it can be viewed that way (and assuming I’m reading that critique properly), I didn’t see it like that all. In the two instances that are presented, while yes, their women are raped, and yes, they can’t handle it, I don’t view it as a manly pride being dashed and their ego being unable to deal; the women they love, the one’s they want to protect from the world are hurt and demeaned and its the reminder of their powerlessness. It is through the lenses of wanting to remove that access to pain from their loved ones that their spirits are ignited. It’s hard for me to see that as a negative. Perhaps I’m being myopic.
Women are often reduced to sideshows in these films and used to turn men into superheros saving their honor in a very macho way, but what I saw in this movie was a man whose family was threatened and it helped to strengthen his resolve and clarify his purpose. His revolt was ordained from God to rid the oppressed, which included the women in their lives, of their oppressors. Women are often men’s backbones, and that is present here. I just didn’t see it as such a lazy representation of women as bland accessories to Nat’s mission.
10. Some of you won’t see it. That’s fair. And expected. Some will. Also fair and expected. Nat Turner’s story is one worthy of note and worth telling. It’s terrible that the vessel with which this story is told happens to be an individual who is having the worst months ever and is doing nothing to help his own case. With that said, I’m very glad this movie exists because, “good” or not, well done stories about who we are and from whence we came are significant.
Matthew 20:16 says that “the last will be first, and the first will be last; many are called but few are chosen.” Nat Turner’s story is that verse. We’re seeing a return to that type of feel nowadays. If anything, knowing that almost 200 years ago, one man incited a community to Black Lives Matter the fuck out of white people for two days knowing that the end would come speaks to inspiration.
Shouts to Nat Turner 1800-1831.