The Ghosts That Linger: Nat, Nate and the Costs of Slavery's Memory

by Sowande’ M. Mustakeem
Assistant Professor of History and African and African-American Studies

I was raised in Stone Mountain, Georgia, a city brought to prominence by the 1915 release of D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation, a film that sparked a rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Many decades later, when my mother enrolled me in third grade, they were still burning crosses in Stone Mountain. Raised in the shadow of this history, I was fully attentive to the legacies of slavery in the lead-up to actor-director Nate Parker’s 2016 film of the same name. Early in the film’s publicity campaign, many people were sure that it would receive many awards, including Oscar nominations. However, controversy soon overshadowed the film, and now in awards season, it has been shut out of the major competitions.

Moving promotional trailers, a haunting soundtrack and the story of young filmmaker Nate Parker’s quest to tell Nat Turner’s iconic story had me fully excited. And, in late 2015 through mid summer 2016, many others shared the sentiment. I viewed the film five days after its nationwide release in October 2016. I went well informed of the allegation that Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin had been accused of sexually assaulting a classmate in 1999. Parker was acquitted, but the details of the case caused many people to believe he was guilty of rape and called for a nationwide boycott of the film

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I went to a local St. Louis theater for a Tuesday midday screening and watched with a small audience, the majority of whom were older African-American women. I paid for a ticket fully aware that all other prominent slavery-centered films had been directed by white and/or black British male directors. Audiences therefore still lack a big-budget female-directed slavery-based film that genders slavery’s memory.

Parker’s Birth of a Nation opens in 1809 with a scene in many ways reminiscent of Haile Gerima’s Sankofa — with country marks, night ritual and the anointing of a future enslaved leader. I knew to expect a brilliant enslaved Nat Turner, barred from reading by his white owners yet educated on the Bible as a tool of control and oppression — continually warned by his owners to study the Word hard and heed its instructions.

As audiences watched Nat and his drunken owner travel by wagon across varying parts of Virginia, the scenes depicting African-Americans attempting to survive often extreme brutalities within a slave society were particularly revealing. The film showed the normalcy of black degradation — Nat being ferociously hit in the face for assisting a white child, the prostituting of a black preacher and his prayers to calm down potentially unruly slaves, many of slavery’s dead unburied on open roads, and the constant demands of white men atop horses. Collectively, these graphic interactions illustrate a time in America’s slaving past that permitted the unflinching reliance on and communal sanctioning of gruesome violence to assert control and superiority over both free and enslaved black people during slavery.

Aja Naomi King as Cherry and Gabrielle Union as Esther. Every time Nat and his owner reboarded the wagon, I braced myself, awaiting the looming rape scene, which has received the greatest critique of many protesting the film. Writing and teaching on slavery and gendered violence never desensitizes you to the portrayal of vulnerability and bloodied mistreatment. Unlike 12 Years a Slave, with its openly visceral scene of Patty’s rape, or the repeated scenes of sexual assault Mona endures throughout Sankofa, there are no actual rape scenes — by sight or sound — within Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation. To be sure, in one scene, a group of white men demand papers from Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), alone in the woods. In another, Gabrielle Union’s character, an enslaved woman named Esther, is requested by one of the slave owner’s drunken party guests. Viewers are left to imagine what has transpired as Esther exits her owner’s party while buttoning her jacket, and while the camera likewise lingers on Cherry, in bed, her face bloated, bloodied and marked, Parker chose not to visualize the assaults.

I believe that the controversy should not detract from the pressing need for critical engagement in public conversations with the traumas of slavery. I struggled with the film — but not for the reasons some critics have suggested I should. The film offers many advances in representations of slavery, which makes it far from, as historian Leslie Alexander claims, an “epic fail.” It is indeed worthy of teaching. In fact, I currently am using it in my undergraduate course, “Slavery and Memory in American Popular Culture.” Placing Parker’s film in conversation with Django Unchained, 12 Years a Slave and Sankofa reveals the variations in telling slavery’s memory. Even more, atypical of the genre, Birth of a Nation provides an opportunity to talk about the depiction of disabled slave bodies and lynched black females and children, as well as moving displays of deep compassion by those confined within the cycle of slavery’s horrors.

Amid the ongoing criticisms and controversies, I have found myself thinking even more about the complexities of this film’s backstory. I have thought about those who chose to take roles in this film and then later having to justify their decisions — much like Debbie Allen with Steven Spielberg’s film Amistad. I have pondered the range of black female and male actors who without this film may not have been considered first for serious roles in a slavery film. Most of all, as a slavery scholar, I have been unable to look past the fact that this high-profile film directed by an African-American filmmaker has been overshadowed by incredible controversy, which may limit our chances to visually experience additional untold narratives about slavery. Fox Searchlight’s $17.5 million distribution deal for Birth of a Nation was record-breaking in the history of race and filmmaking, but its dismal turnout could mark slavery-centered stories as risky investments for future filmmakers, studios and viewing audiences. In a post-Obama era fueled by the continued erasure of race and slavery’s terrors and the unwillingness of some to engage America’s active slaving past — on or off screen – this controversy once again shrouds the existence of those I refer to in my recent book as the “half dead unintended ghosts of slavery,” those who linger on the edges of public interest and national consciousness, awaiting remembrance.