Slavery on film: Blood on the leaves

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THE road from Hattie McDaniel’s turn as Mammy in “Gone with The Wind”, which earned her an Oscar in 1940, to “12 Years a Slave”, which won Best Picture in 2014, was long and steep. Mammy is the epitome of Hollywood’s old, morally purblind plantation mythology; Steve McQueen’s film strove to capture slavery’s incessant terrors. “The Birth of a Nation”, which is released this week, asks audiences to make another interpretive leap: to see that, since slavery was evil, it was legitimate, even righteous, for slaves to rise up against their tormentors. It raises questions about the past’s grip on the present, about injustice and redemption, but in more than the intended way.

“The Birth of a Nation” retells the story of Nat Turner, leader of a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. That title, appropriated from D.W. Griffith’s racist classic of 1915, signals its historiographical ambition. An in-cinema voter-registration drive underscores the implicit link with today’s combustible racial politics, in which black Americans are renewing the fight against discrimination even as many whites believe it no longer exists—and as Donald Trump dogwhistles about urban crime. As Dexter Gabriel of the University of Connecticut says, cinematic slavery tends to reveal more about the filmmakers’ era than the antebellum one. He notes that today’s interest in rebel slaves, also manifest in the TV drama “Underground” and a slew of novels and plays, echoes that of the late 1960s and early 1970s, another period of black activism.

Like many African-American leaders, during slavery and since, Turner was a preacher: his Bible is displayed in the new National Museum of African-American History and Culture in Washington. In the film his owner hires him out to help neighbours pacify their own slaves, a task that becomes a Dante-esque descent into slavery’s hell. Turner incrementally realises both his own complicity and that the notion of a benevolent master is illusory. The bloodiness of the revolt is frank (an endnote acknowledges that its targets included children), as are the awful reprisals inflicted as panic spreads across the South, here set to Nina Simone’s piercing version of “Strange Fruit”. “They killin’ people everywhere for no reason at all but bein’ black,” says Turner’s wife Cherry, a line that, at a preview in Atlanta, elicited sighs of assent.

The camera flinches only once, panning away when Cherry is savagely raped by a white gang. Unfortunately, sexual violence has come into focus through a related story of ugliness and its aftermath. Turner is played by Nate Parker, who also co-wrote, directed and produced the film. In 1999, when he was a wrestler at Penn State, Mr Parker and his roommate—and now writing partner—Jean Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student. Mr Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, though the verdict was later overturned. Mr Parker was acquitted, though in a recent comment on the episode, which to some seemed insufficiently contrite, he conceded that “there are things more important than the law”. Details of the incident disclosed in court records are nauseating. Their accuser later killed herself.

To a few, such as Al Sharpton, the re-emergence of this 17-year-old case in the run-up to the film’s release suggests a bid to blunt its impact; others whisper about commercial machinations meant to derail its Oscar prospects, which, in the faddish, ingratiating world of Hollywood, seemed strong after this year’s #OscarsSoWhite outcry. Conversely some prominent black women have called for a boycott, seeing Mr Parker’s past as a disqualifying stain. Discussion has threatened to devolve into a competition between the moral claims of different kinds of victims.

A better question may concern the relevance of an artist’s biography to assessments of his work. After all, plenty of celebrated writers, composers and indeed directors have led indefensible private lives: Sir Thomas Malory may have scribbled parts of “Le Morte d’Arthur”, the greatest depiction of Arthurian romance, in prison, possibly for rape. How long ago such offences occurred, and how grave they were, are bound to affect estimations of their relevance. So, in even more complex fashion, does the importance and quality of the art itself.

In the case of “The Birth of a Nation”, the answer is: mixed. Mr Parker’s performance is admirable, as are his efforts to humanise both slaves and masters and his portrayal of the uses and abuses of faith. Occasionally, though, it lapses into corniness or cliché. Probably the only way to judge whether its merits outweigh his shortcomings is to see it for yourself.

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Julio Marchi ©

Publisher / Editor at BS News & Media Services
A free thinker, not labelled as anything, not associated with any party, not part of any group or engaged with any religion... A simple guy tired of the nowadays bullshit who decided to promote more serious debates about what is really happening hoping to bring back intelligence to the superficial and shallow news & headlines that unfortunately took over the existing media scene.
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