Monday, October 17, 2016
The Birth of a (Killing) Nation
Reviewed by Biko Agozino (Only my thoughts, not a spoiler; go and see it for yourself)
This critically acclaimed and multi award-winning debut by Nate Parker was a moving movie to watch. The film goes to support the claim of bell hooks that people of African descent rarely go to the movies to have fun, unlike white people who enjoy more positive representations. The huge film theater in rural Virginia, not far from the Southampton County setting of the film, was almost completely empty except for an old white man and his grandson (too young for the 17 certification if you ask me, hence his giggles at harrowing scenes), an elderly white couple eating bags of pop corn (how could they have an appetite?), a middle aged black couple who sometimes moaned audibly and yours truly (I had to leave briefly to use the rest room during the whipping scene). The theater security walked around several times with a blinking neon sign, perhaps to check and make sure that there was no troublemaker; for it was rumored that some people were scared of possible retaliations by others who may be angered by the brutality in the film. The violence in the film was not all that unusual in the genre that Andre Seewood dubbed ‘slave cinema’. African Americans had seen worse depictions of violence against their ancestors without resorting to violent ‘revenge’, the battle cry of Nat Turner and his fellow rebels during the bloody battle scene towards the end of the film.
In other words, there is no need for what Du Bois dubbed ‘the souls of white folk’ to fear retaliation from ‘The Souls of Black Folk’ for the evil of slavery given that people of African descent have tended to rely more on nonviolence as a protest strategy than on terrorism, making the uprising of Nat Turner and his fellow rebels the minority tendency that was relatively rare during the 400 years of slavery and yet fear of rebellions led to furtive legislative attempts to make the slave trade illegal, a la Du Bois in his doctoral dissertation at Harvard University: The Suppression of the African Slave Trade.
The fear of vengeance may be a sign of the current times of terrorism when people who bear a comparatively less serious grudge have resorted to murderous violence whereas people of African descent appear to have forgiven the unforgivable past wrongs and even seem to love their enemies in line with the initial theology of Nat Turner and brother Jesus before the kick ass Revelations and in other Holy Books of the Abrahamic religions, according to Jacques Derrida. It is fellow black people who should be scared of black violence, just as hell fire preaching was directed at the choir, because people of African descent seem unforgiving and more vicious against fellow people of African descent over relatively minor slights. Europeans have also waged genocidal wars against fellow Europeans but Africans differ in the sense that they do not kill others at the rates that they kill fellow Africans. The only violent actions by African women in the film occurred when the newly bought future bride of Nat Turner jumped him like a wild animal and indirectly when she was given to Nat's mother to be 'broken'. Nat Turner's grandmother grovelled before the slave catcher who was after Nat's father for killing a white man but it was a device to allow her to conceal the stolen tin food.
Nat Turner did not appear to hate his ‘master’ who was really his childhood playmate, even if the games were hierarchical with the white boy playing the predator while young Nat played the prey in their games of hide and seek. The racism that was being ingrained by such ‘child’s play’ was dramatized in the scene where a little white girl played with a little enslaved girl by tying a noose around her neck and prancing across the porch with the black girl prancing along behind her knowing that her life literally depended on playing along. I suspect that Nat may not have hated his 'master' because his white mother was the one who took Nat into the great house and taught him to read the ‘good book’ even if she also warned him to stay away from big books, that were supposedly only for white folks, which he instinctively wanted to learn first. Initially when Nat's mother was told that he knew how to read letters (he had swiped a book from the porch to teach himself by candle light), his mother was scared for it was illegal to teach the enslaved how to read and write and she promised to whip him good. But the white woman said that it was a good thing and that she would teach him better. When Nat was hanged for killing her son and others, she witnessed it with tears in her eyes.
It was later that Nat was forced by the young master to go and work in the fields picking cotton with bleeding fingers after he inherited the plantation following the death of his father and the increase in the indebtedness of the estate. I suspect that Nat did not really hate him because he bore his father’s name, Turner, despite the prophecy of the African priest who prophesied that he was born to be a leader of his people based on the birthmarks on his belly. As a boy, he watched his father kill a slave catcher who had tried to arrest him for stealing food to feed the hungry Nat because Nat could not hustle some of the mashed potatoes that the other enslaved kids gobbled up like farm animals. I did not see hatred in Nat for the ‘master’ as he encouraged him to continue preaching to the enslaved, took him to other plantations to preach and pacify the enslaved with verses like that of Paul’s letter to the Romans: ‘Slaves should be obedient to their masters, and even to those that are cruel’.
It is true that the master pimped his preaching in order to collect donations from the other plantations to offset some of his debts and it is true that he never gave any of the donations to preacher Nat. Yet, when a white man came to attempt to beat Nat for having the audacity to baptize a white man, his master stood up for him. Also when a white man wanted to beat Nat for speaking to his wife after picking up a doll that her child had dropped and handing it to the child, his master again stood up for him by asking the white man to lower his threatening cane or he would give him something to complain about when the police arrived. Nat was not punished for the rapping duel with a white drunken preacher who quoted pro-slavery verses while Nat replied with angry verses about the God of wrath, demonstrating that he was already radicalized by the brutality that he witnessed on his visits to preach at other plantations. He now sounded like Malcolm X, Louis Farrakhan and Jeremiah Wright rolled into one voice.
Nat and his ‘master’ rode together in a horse drawn carriage with Nat as the well-dressed driver. When they went to an auction for enslaved people, he took the advice of Nat to buy a young black girl that Nat fancied and whom he later married; though she was given to the master’s sister as a present and so had to live miles away from him. But the young master appeared to remain single, raising doubts about the nature of his relationship with Nat and why he appeared annoyed when Nat woke him up at night to ask for a pass so that he could go and see his wife who had been gang raped by four white men who also beat her nearly to the point of death. Nat assured him of his gratitude.
The first sign of conflict between Nat and the master (apart from being ejected from the big house and being ordered to join those who worked in the fields) was when the master threw a dinner party just as his father used to do and he asked Nat to join all the enslaved to serve at the great table. Preacher Nat was visibly alarmed to see one of the guests grabbing the private parts of one of the enslaved women in front of her enslaved husband. Later that night, the light-skinned enslaved house Negro went round to the shack of the enslaved family to demand that the woman should leave her husband and go and sleep with the guest. The husband screamed that he would rather be lynched first. This drew the attention of preacher Nat who tried to go and reason with the master. But the drunk master was angry that Nat questioned his order and he matched the enslaved woman to be raped by the guest in the big house before letting her return to her husband’s embrace, both in tears, and the man asked Nat; ‘where is God now?’ Then the 'master' had Nat tied to a post and whipped all night to teach him his lessons for opposing his orders. The other enslaved Africans lit up lamps and left them in a silent tribute to Nat and or to ward off snakes as he remained chained and bleeding all night. When he admitted that he had learned his lessons in the morning, he was unchained and the women, including his mother and his grandmother tended to the open wounds across his back.
This may explain why the ‘master’ was the first white man that Nat chopped off his head when the revolt started. But he was disgusted by the killing and he physically threw up afterwards. Similarly, the other enslaved rebels opted to be the ones that would chop off the heads of their own ‘masters’. When the man whose wife was used to entertain a guest chopped off the head of the white overseer who had whipped Nat, he picked up his young daughter, a child, who was forced to sleep with the pedophile overseer.
The enslaved young African boy whom Nat had allowed to participate in the conspiracy against the objections of some of the men may have been the one who leaked the conspiracy to the light-skinned house slave who tried to talk them out of the plan with the warning that if they went through with it, the all would die. The young enslaved boy later fled from the killings and may have raised the alarm that rallied the poor whites who never enslaved Africans themselves but who relished the roles of helping to maintain slavery. They armed themselves with guns in ambush against the rebels who went to the armory only to find that the guns were gone. The closing scenes saw the carnival atmosphere when Nat was hanged with children, men and women, gathered and with the national colors of the flag draping the stands and with the surviving enslaved forced to watch. The young enslaved boy had tears in his eyes at the hanging of the dignified Nat and the shot faded into him as a grown bearded man in uniform fighting for the Union during the Civil War about 30 years later.
Given the centrality of enslaved African women in the grievances that led to the uprising, the film may have failed by not including the women in the planning and execution of the insurrection the way that Harriet Tubman, for instance, fought to liberate so many. Nat went to his mother to get her blessings and then to his bed-ridden wife to hear her tell him to ‘go and fight for us’. But the fact that one of the enslaved who was hanged when the uprising was defeated was a woman demands that the revolutionary role of enslaved Maroon women should not have been limited to having them bless the patriarchal warriors. By having the wife of Nat deny that she was talking to Nat who was on the run and who secretly came to have a last word before giving himself up, the film was obviously trying to highlight the agency of enslaved women. However, given what is known about the raping of enslaved African children and women by Thomas Jefferson, the film should not have opened with a quotation from Jefferson confessing that God was surely going to punish the wicked. A quote from Frederick Douglas about power conceding nothing without a demand could have been a better epigraph.
The soulful rendition of ‘Strange Fruits’ by Nina Simone as one of the soundtracks, along with some of the songs of sorrow spirituals, sounded very appropriate especially during the mass hanging scene but Nate Parker, the writer-director-producer should have gone beyond the US (nationalism) to bring in some of the (internationalist) songs of Bob Marley and the Wailers such as ‘Catch A Fire’, ‘War’, ‘Buffalo Soldiers’, or ‘400 Years’ by Peter Tosh, ‘Slavery Days’ by Burning Spear, or ‘Slave’ by MightySparrow and another by Lucky Dube. Strange Fruit was written by a white dude, no offense, but there appears to be too much subconscious deference to white supremacy in this supposedly black rebellion movie. My colleague has just reminded me that the alliance between Nat Turner and American Indian Natives was also erased by the film.
I wonder why the great Spike Lee, one of the consultants, did not persuade Nate Parker to avoid glorifying the founding father of racist films by naming his own exactly the same gutter title since he could have been more innovative in his own choice of titles. As I sat watching the long credits roll across the big screen, I wondered if most of the names behind the camera were white people or if they were African Americans and if so, why people of African descent would make such a movie about our peculiar history of undeserved suffering and still proudly answer to the slave names imposed by the wicked hundreds of years earlier. Nat Turner may not have had a choice about his name but how about the Nate Parker and the present generation of African Americans?
Only two names sounded like Igbo African names, Chike Okonkwo who played the role of ‘Willie’ and the skillful Director of Still Photography whose last name, Chikwendiu, sounded Igbo too, though the spelling appeared Anglicized, but the misspelling could be the devil’s apprentice in the editing suite. Douglas Chambers states that the majority of the Africans enslaved in Virginia were of Igbo descent and he recounts how some of them were executed or sold after being suspected of poisoning the grandfather of president Madison in Montpelier. I understand that there is a street called Hanging Tree Street in the area today and I was expecting that many more bodies were going to be hanging from that tree than the handful shown in The Birth of a Nation; plus, it would have been more effective to show a shot of the street sign being removed and replaced with ‘Nat Turner Street’ in the film, at least in recognition of the token reparation of the return of the trophy pieces of his body collected by men, women and children who celebrated his hanging as if it was a World Series victory by a local team accompanied by the flag and by the anthem that Colin Kapernick and others refuse to stand up for. Why not adopt Louis Armstrong’s ‘What A Wonderful World’ as the new national anthem of the US (perhaps because with racism-sexism-imperialism, it is still not such a wonderful world)?
I suggest that the retention of slave names by people of African descent is no longer done out of fear of repression against those like Kunta Kinte who insisted on retaining African names or Nat Turner who endured the assault of the slave name. I hypothesize that this naming of children after people who despised Africans may be an act of love for the enemy whose religious affiliations are also preferred by the descendants of the enslaved, given that the naming of children after someone is an absolute act of honor and given that those children today are exposed to a preferred predominantly white educational institutions that are craved more than Historically Black Colleges and Universities by the descendants of the enslaved today, as was the case with Nat Turner who did not have any choice in who his teacher was.
We straighten our hair (including dreadlocks) or shave it off completely and wear European garbs just like Nat Turner and his fellow rebels and yet white people say that they are scared of black people. Some even called for a boycott of the film because the co-directors were acquitted of the charge of raping a white female student in college and she later committed suicide (Perhaps Nate Parker has already made donations from his huge revenues to rape crisis centers and or to suicide prevention programs to acknowledge the love he shared with the woman as his date before the alleged rape, acquittal, and suicide). Black people do not appear to hate white people and they are not obsessed about getting a revenge for the hundreds of years of slavery. They are more interested in the reparative justice so much that the UN recently agreed that the US owes reparations to African Americans, a cause that Caribbean nations are seeking from the UK and which African countries should seek from their colonizers.
It is true that the authors of Freakonomics, following research by an African American professor at Harvard University, rationalized the preference for slave names on the basis that employers tend to discriminate against African-sounding names on the assumption that it is mainly the poor parents in the inner cities who give such names to their children under the influence of the Afrocentricity of Molefi Asante and Maulana Karenga. Yet a black man with an exotic name ended up as the greatest heavyweight boxing champion after dropping his slave name and another became the first elected black president of the US with a message of racial reconciliation despite the demeaning comments and hatred towards him. Is this love, stupidity, or cowardice? I say that it is love and if only the people of African descent could extend more of their love for white people to fellow African Americans, there would be more progress in the African American community no matter the violence directed at them by modern day slave catchers and lynch mobs who remain reluctant to accept that Black Lives Matter; otherwise all lives do not matter.
Part of the reasons why people of African descent survived the holocaust of slavery, The Birth of a Nation seems to suggest, was because of the love the ancestors had for one another despite sexism, colorism, betrayals and envy among them and terrorist repression against them. Much more will be achieved through the Beloved Community of brother Martin, by any means necessary as brother Malcolm advocated with a preference for the ballot over the bullet when voting is possible and effective in a democratic society. The film could be seen as indirectly trying to teach the importance of loving one another even after some of the people have been defiled, destroyed, and discarded; they remained the Beloved of Toni Morrison with whom we will need to give birth to the new nation without resentment; for Mandela advised that resentment is like taking poison and hoping that it would kill your enemy. Who wants to die, other than Jesus, asked Peter Tosh?
As Du Bois pointed out in BlackReconstruction in America, if the poor ‘white proletariat’ had seen that they had more in common with the enslaved ‘black proletariat’ and united with them rather than be the storm troopers to burn black schools, exclude black workers from racist trade unions, segregate places of worship and entertainment and intimidate black voters from voting, the poor people could have united to vote in more progressive governments that would continue to expand access to publicly funded education, make healthcare and housing more affordable, promote international peace, offer reparations for slavery, protect the environment, and create more jobs with living wages for men and women through massive funding for infrastructures and childcare. It was only after slavery was abolished that the Americas started leaping forward economically as millions of people who were forced to work to death without pay got the chance to earn income that they saved, invested or spent in the economy to boost wealth creation while all workers finally got the right not to work more than 40 hours a week without overtime payment if they are forced to choose to work longer.
Dr. Agozino is a Professor of Sociology and Africana Studies at Virginia Tech, 540-231-7699; firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com