Reclaiming History in ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Nate Parker, director, star, and producer of "The Birth of a Nation," accept the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award for the film during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival Awards Ceremony, January 30, 2016, in Park City, Utah.

Who would have imagined that a black filmmaker would push back on Hollywood’s racism by making a historical film about an overlooked black man who fought against white supremacy more than a century ago? What a difference a century of movie making has imprinted on the image of and possibilities for black men in America.

This week, 101 years ago, filmmaker D.W. Griffith premiered his groundbreaking and controversial silent movie about the Civil War. Last month, filmmaker Nate Parker sold the rights to his Sundance Award-winning movie about Nat Turner’s 1821 slave rebellion to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million.

Both movies are titled “The Birth of a Nation.” And although it may not be apparent at first, both movies share something else in common: Beneath the surface of their oppositional imagery, both movies are obsessed with imparting two diametrically opposed visions of black men into America’s collective consciousness—Griffith’s based in racism, Parker’s in realism.

Griffith’s 1915 movie—an over-the-top masterpiece of early American cinema—is best known for its racist portrayal of black men, as well as for sparking race riots in major U.S. cities such as Boston and Philadelphia, with groups of whites targeting African Americans. Initially titled after and based on “The Clansman,” a popular novel by Thomas F. Dixon Jr. published in 1905, the three-hour-plus film employed new movie-making technologies of the day, such as extreme close-ups and narrative storytelling through continuity editing, to portray black men—played by white actors in blackface makeup—as brutishly ignorant and sexually aggressive toward white women. Those racist stereotypes, created and codified in Griffith’s blockbuster, continue to be seen in popular culture a century later.

New Yorker film critic Richard Brody, in a 2013 review of the film, offered side-eyed praise, noting “the worst thing about ‘Birth of a Nation’ is how good it is.” He goes on to say:

What “Birth of a Nation” offers, even more than a vision of history, is a template for the vast, world-embracing capabilities of the cinema. It provided extraordinarily powerful tools for its own refutation. The real crime was not Griffith’s, but the world’s: the fact that most viewers knew little about slavery and little about Reconstruction and little about Jim Crow and little about the Klan, and were all too ready to swallow the very worst of the movie without question. They saw only what Griffith wanted to say but not what the movie showed, and, upon seeing what Griffith showed, were ready to take up arms in anger. Ambient and accepted racism left viewers ignorant of the facts and prone to accept Griffith’s racist version as authentic—and denied other filmmakers the chance to appropriate and even to advance Griffith’s methods and make movies offering historically faithful accounts of the same periods and events.

Enter Nate Parker’s corrective “The Birth of a Nation.” In an interview with People, the film’s director, producer, co-writer, and lead actor explained that making a movie about Nat Turner had been a personal obsession since he was a student at the University of Oklahoma. “In college, if someone [asked] me who my hero [was], the answer they’d get without hesitation was Nat Turner,” Parker told the magazine, adding that he modeled his own life after the slave rebellion leader.

Parker’s version of Turner’s story has never been told. Eschewing both Thomas Ruffin Gray’s jailhouse book “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” which was published shortly after Turner was hanged for leading the slave uprising, as well as the 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name by William Styron, Parker researched Turner’s life on his own and crafted a screenplay that reflects a more contemporary view.

Barb Lee, an executive producer of the film, told me in an interview last week that she hopes the movie will be inspirational to all Americans—but especially to black youth. “One film can change movie history, for sure,” said Lee, president and founder of Point Made Films, a New York production company that specializes in documentaries about American identity. “I think any unspoken shame of slaves not fighting back against their oppressors can be healed by this story, and I think young black people will have the hero they’ve always deserved. And it might lead older people to question the history we were told, and to get curious about other people’s stories we should know.”

Parker, now 36, has scored some success in Hollywood, with film and television credits going back to 2004. But with the impending release of his “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker is about to make a bigger name for himself and potentially alter the way Hollywood views African Americans—both behind the camera and on the screen. Such a bold prediction stems from the fact that his movie, yet to be seen by the general public, was sold to a major distributor for what was a remarkable and record sum for an independent film after Parker was told repeatedly that investors would not back his version of black history. This investment—along with early positive reviews—foreshadows the film’s potential to be a hit at the box office and with movie audiences.

“It was very difficult [securing financial backing], for so many reasons,” Parker told an audience during a question-and-answer session following his Sundance premiere. “I think anytime we’re dealing with our history, specifically with slavery, I find that it has been desperately sanitized. There’s a resistance to dealing with this material.”

In an admiring review of the movie, Matt Patches wrote for Thrillist that the significance of Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” is the fiery spirit displayed off the screen:

Parker found the money, divorced himself from corporate control, and nurtured Birth of a Nation into an unflinching historical document. His defiant approach begins with pillaging the title of a racially-charged, silent era classic, and ends with Turner, played by Parker, leading the Southampton Insurrection in all its bloody glory. The indie avenue prohibited the actor-turned-director from stretching Turner’s story to the scope of Spartacus or classically tailoring it like the picturesque 12 Years a Slave—a $10 million budget only goes so far. Parker compensates with fury.

Hollywood hasn’t been kind to black film lovers of late. Some—such as a long line of NAACP leaders going back to the organization’s national secretary, Mary Childs Nerney, in 1915, have argued that the movie industry’s image problem stems from D.W. Griffith’s racist propaganda. And with the impending #OscarsSoWhite boycott of the 2016 Academy Awards, the industry’s woes do not seem to be on the wane. Yet the century-long gulf between the two very different stories and images contained in each “The Birth of A Nation” film suggests that there is hope to narrow the yawning distance between Hollywood and media representations of black Americans and their actual lived aspirations and history.

Sam Fulwood III is a Senior Fellow at the Center for American Progress and Director of the CAP Leadership Institute. His work with the Center’s Progress 2050 project examines the impact of policies on the nation when there will be no clear racial or ethnic majority by the year 2050.