Understanding Rape as a Weapon of Terror: How the new film Birth of a Nation missed an opportunity
Here is my latest opinion piece in the Hollywood Reporter on the new film about Nat Turner.
Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation team ask viewers to take history seriously and to grapple with the most painful parts of America’s past, particularly the legacy of racialized and sexualized violence at the center of slavery. Parker told an audience at the Los Angeles Film Festival in June that when entertaining distributors, he insisted upon a curriculum to accompany the film that would allow them to take Nat Turner’s story and its history to schools everywhere. “We want that curriculum in every school,” he said, “edited in a way that it can go to high schools and middle schools. And [Fox] Searchlight did not flinch.”
Sadly, Parker and Fox Searchlight fail viewers with a “curriculum” that is carefully culled from sources like Wikipedia and overly simplifies the African American freedom struggle and the horrific history of rape as a tool of racial oppression.
The official Birth of a Nation film website highlights freedom fighters from around the world, implying they followed in Turner’s footsteps (in the “Nat Turner Lives” section). But the line from the past to the present isn’t always as straightforward as the website implies. For example, one biographical sketch points to Rosa Parks as a successor of Turner’s rebellion without mentioning (or perhaps knowing) that she admired armed self-defense, yet was a longtime student of civil disobedience, who trained at the famous Highlander FolkSchool before the 1955 Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott. Or that she was an anti-rape activist at least a decade before and many years after the bus boycott, when she fought to protect black women, such as Recy Taylor in 1944 and Joan Little in 1975, who were raped or assaulted by white men (an especially ironic omission given the resurfacing of news about Parker’s college sexual assault case).
It was that issue — bodily integrity and the right to move through the world without being assaulted or touched inappropriately — that gave rise to the Montgomery bus boycott, a fierce women’s resistance movement if ever there was one. Indeed, resistance to the horrific history of rape fueled many campaigns for freedom and justice, and black women were often at the center of these struggles — from Ida B. Wells to Parks to the women behind the recent #SayHerName movement. To trot out tired tales of some of the most powerful black activists — especially women like Parks — and then suggest, as her brief bio does, that it was Martin Luther King Jr.’s leadership that was central to the bus boycott instead of the thousands of black women who made it possible is irresponsible and ahistorical.
Using women like Parks to highlight male leaders makes the graphic rape scene in Birth of a Nation seem like another effort to justify male vengeance and retributive violence — as if women are simply things men fight over — instead of identifying rape as a political weapon used to terrorize individuals and communities. Worse, it makes the black women who were victims of interracial rape and sexual terror invisible in the long struggle for freedom and human dignity.
If this is the kind of history “curriculum” Parker and Fox Searchlight have in mind, then Parker’s dream of using his film to plumb the horrors of the past to understand our present will fail. Instead, he will have created just another film that uses women and the defense of women’s bodily integrity as a prop to glorify male violence. And how different is that premise from the one put forward in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation?
Like the Parks bio, nearly every “Nat Turner Lives” vignette featured on the website is taken from Wikipedia or another simplistic source. The bio of Parks was lifted from History.com. The story of Elizabeth Eckford and the brave African-American teens who integrated Central High School in Little Rock, Ark., in 1957 was taken from an essay by Ben Cosgrove on Time.com. Entries on powerful black females such as Maya Angelou and Ruby Bridges, as well as major feminist interventions in American history such as the Women’s Strike for Equality, are repackaged from Wikipedia. If Parker and Fox Searchlight really cared about connecting the past and the present in an effort to teach young people about the gender and racial legacies of slavery and freedom, perhaps they could have invested time in building a site with more intellectual depth. Even my students know Wikipedia is not a legitimate historical source.
That all of this comes alongside news of the decades-old rape accusation against Parker and Jean Celestin, his college roommate and Birth of a Nation co-writer, indicates that Parker and his team of promoters have much to learn about how to talk about and teach the long history of rape and resistance to racialized sexual violence and the ways in which it remains an important issue today.
Danielle McGuire is the author of the award winning book At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance–A New History of the Civil Rights Movement from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power and an associate professor of history at Wayne State University in Detroit.