On Friday, Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" comes to theaters nationwide
Clay Cane: Film is riddled with historical inaccuracies and falsehoods that undermine significance of Nat Turner's rebellion
Editor’s Note: Clay Cane is a New York-based journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of the forthcoming “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.
Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt is a watershed moment in American history. The preacher-turned-rebel led an insurrection that resulted in the murders of over 60 white women, men and children in Southampton, Virginia. Many scholars mark the rebellion as the catalyst for the civil war, placing fear in the hearts and minds of slave owners, letting them know slavery would not last forever.
As a student of African-American studies, I have waited for years to see a cinematic depiction of Nat Turner, which is no easy feat. His story is complex, nuanced and iconic. Therefore, I admit my opinion about “The Birth of a Nation,” the highly anticipated film by Nate Parker, might be biased. Nonetheless, Turner’s story deserved better, and first-time writer and director Nate Parker failed to deliver. With unforgivable inaccuracies, a complete reinvention of Turner’s identity and failure to appropriately highlight the slave rebellion – the most important part of Turner’s story – “Birth of a Nation” is a historical injustice.
Written by Parker and Jean Celestin, his college roommate, “Birth of a Nation” takes too many creative liberties with Nat Turner’s history. To begin, the Fox Searchlight film spends nearly an hour showcasing the romance of Nat Turner and his alleged wife, Cherry. And yet there is little historical evidence to support this relationship. By most accounts, “Nat never acknowledged a wife in his later writings, and may not have thought this marriage valid. Cherry did have children, but they were likely [his owner] Samuel Turner’s.” Parker also made Turner a father, but there is little evidence that Turner had children.
Though the history might be difficult to confirm, and there is a possibility Turner was married, Nate Parker’s creative decision to focus on Turner as a father and husband is perplexing. Instead of exploring key parts of Turner’s story – that he was sold to several plantations, ran away from one of his masters (and returned a month later because of visions) and confessed in jail, a firsthand account of which was written and published later by his lawyer – Parker ignored those details.
Biopics are never entirely historically accurate, nor should they necessarily be held to the same standards as nonfiction works. However, Parker’s creative liberties crossed the line when he fabricated Turner’s motivation for the legendary slave revolt. All accounts say Nat Turner’s inspiration for rebelling was via divine vision. Strangely, in Parker and Celestin’s version, Turner was motivated to revolt as a result of his wife being raped, which is not true.
“Birth of a Nation” transformed Nat Turner into a reactionary, angry slave out to avenge his wife’s rape. That would be akin to a film about Rosa Parks claiming she refused to sit in the back of the bus because of a sexual assault. The rape plot device was unnecessary, awkward, uncomfortable and poorly executed. By inserting it, “Birth of a Nation” tainted the sacred history of one of the greatest figures in black history.
Nate Parker as Nat Turner crumbled in a one-note performance. Similar to his previous roles in “Red Tails,” “The Great Debaters” and “Beyond the Lights,” he played Turner stoically and stiffly. Keep in mind, for the majority of his career, Parker has portrayed “pretty-perfect,” so-called “positive” characters, and he’s talked in detail about the importance of playing characters to “preserve the black man.”
In “Birth of a Nation,” Parker was obsessed with his own respectability politics. By turning Turner into an upstanding family man, sadly, he sanitized the icon. He made Turner fight for a cause we could all respect, but he did so at the expense of historical precision.
The final 30 minutes is the slave rebellion, which I hoped would redeem the historical inaccuracies and uneven storytelling. Unlike his marriage, this is the part of Turner’s history that is well-documented in texts and his own writings. Disappointingly, Parker limited the rebellion to a few axes and shootouts. Maybe a more seasoned director would have known we needed to see the brutality of the rebellion, no matter how disturbing.
According to History.com, “Turner’s small band of hatchet-wielding slaves killed his master, Joseph Travis, along with his wife, 9-year-old son and a hired hand as they slept in their beds. Realizing they had left one family member alive in the house, two slaves returned to the Travis home and killed ‘a little infant sleeping in a cradle’ before dumping its body in the fireplace.” Parker’s Turner was mild, restrained and historically incorrect.
I believe Nate Parker’s intent was sincere. The film took seven years to make, and he invested his own money. I also value the voter registration efforts taking place at screenings across the country. However, I have been told, as a black journalist, I am not “allowed” to be critical of “Birth of a Nation.”
I do not support films blindly.
I do not believe in representation at all costs.
Historical accuracy — at least in the broad facts, if not the small details — is paramount. Nat Turner’s life is crucial to the legacy of America; this was a story that shouldn’t have been heavily remixed. I hope “Birth of a Nation” inspires others to learn more about Nat Turner. Regardless of whether you see the film, research the rebel on your own. His history and impact are invaluable, though Hollywood may not be the best place to showcase the work of this enigmatic figure.
Clay Cane is a New York-based journalist, author and documentary filmmaker. He is the author of the forthcoming “Live Through This: Surviving the Intersections of Sexuality, God, and Race.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own.