Riley Wilson: ”The Birth of a Nation” Didn’t Change the Game

I can’t be more excited—or more vexed—about Nate Parker scoring the biggest Sundance distribution deal ever with “The Birth of a Nation,” his directorial debut. On the one hand, we have a film written, directed and starring a Black man that tells the story of an enslaved African-American by the name of Nat Turner who led the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history. On the other hand, we have a film about slavery—again.

From a business perspective, Parker’s $17.5 million distribution deal with Fox Searchlight—the same company that put out the Oscar-winning ”12 Years A Slave”—is a big feat. And it’s a timely contribution to the ongoing #OscarsSoWhite discussion about Hollywood’s racism.

But if you consider the rapturous reviews of “The Birth of a Nation” and the popularity of Black Lives Matter, a film studio would be silly not to invest in such a project. Black folks fighting for their rights—let alone their lives—is so in right now. ”The Birth of a Nation” deal doesn’t absolve Hollywood for the countless years it has passed over exceptional Black films that don’t depict African-Americans as slaves or domestic servants. It does not directly address the systemic and cultural barriers to entry. 

If I’m going to spend my time watching another movie set during slavery, I’d much prefer one where people are fighting back. But, to be quite honest, I cringe every time I see a period film about this topic gain more notoriety than films that speak to the current condition of Black lives—cue “Fruitvale Station,” “Dope” and even “Creed.” There’s a side-eye permanently etched into my face when I know, as a filmmaker myself, that there are so many other stories to tell. It’s like the only way a film about the Black experience is rewarded is if it’s about the good-ole’ days of slavery.

Colorlines did a Twitter poll when news of Parker’s huge deal broke. The majority of folks said they were happy about it. But 27 percent asked, “Another slave movie?” I’m with that 27 percent. When the dust settles, the awards are done and ”The Birth of a Nation” is no longer in theaters, a huge swath of America will still not know what it is to live in modern-day society as a Black person.

My qualm is not with the success that “The Birth of Nation” has had so far. It’s with the lackadaisical nature of an industry that allows so many great movies from writers and directors of color to fall through the cracks. I’m happy that Nate Parker is rumbling through Hollywood. But I’m still not satisfied. And the Oscars are still so White. 

Riley Wilson is Colorlines’ community editor and the writer, director and star of “Orange Bright,” a short drama about a troubled young Black man obsessed with flying.

Colorlines screengrab from D.W. Griffith's "The Birth of a Nation"

Shantrelle P. Lewis: Nate Parker’s “The Birth of A Nation” is the Biggest Clapback Hollywood Has Ever Seen 

I was 5 years old the first time I learned about the Haitian Revolution. It was one of several epic histories that I read about in a 1983 children’s book by Nkechi Taifa called “Shining Legacy: A Treasury of ‘Storypoems and Tales for the Young So Black Heroes Forever Will Be Sung.’” Knowing this history afforded me a luxury the average Black child doesn’t have–a self narrative informed by a well-rounded discourse about my ancestors. My heritage was not synonymous with inferiority but with courage and strategic resistance.

In second grade I started learning about Black history in February. Most lessons involved slave ships, cotton fields, whips and chains. But I didn’t shrink from this traumatic history because I had already been equipped with perpendicular information about some of the enslaved Black people who rebelled like L’Ouverture, Cinqué and Denmark Vesey. 

In 2016, most of our parents, us and our children have a limited view of history—especially any involving people of African descent. We’re taught that Black history begins with slave ships, cotton gins, beatings, lynchings and rape and ends with segregated buses, water hoses, police dogs and burning crosses. This view has been exacerbated by the predominant images of Black people today, those from the minstrel shows that are reality television programs and the viral videos showing police-sanctioned murders of Black people on social media.

So I too suffer from slavery-movie fatigue. Those with images of us being brutalized exhaust me because they so often lack the full spectrum of the horror and any evidence of our resistance. But I will never grow tired of movies about slavery that depict our courage, tenacity and gall to kick master’s ass! After all, if it weren’t for the success of Dutty Boukman [PDF], Jean-Jacques Dessalines, Henri Christophe, L’Ouverture and countless other Africans whose names we may never know, we might still be enslaved. 

Despite the many painful and unsuccessful attempts by Danny Glover to tell the story of the Haitian Revolution, and the recent French production of “Toussaint L’Ouverture,” there has yet to be a Hollywood film truly depicting that great moment in history. And the closest thing we’ve seen to a realistic Black insurrection is the short opening scene of “The Feasts of All Saints.” Nate Parker, who put his acting career on hold to make his unprecedented film, is changing that.

Beyond what the sale of Parker’s film signifies,”The Birth of a Nation” is a brilliant clapback against the first movie to use this title, D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Ku Klux Klan propaganda film. This fiction about how Blacks would dominate White southerners and rape White women if allowed to retain power during Reconstruction was a precursor to the summer and fall of 1919, a period known as the Red Summer. During the Red Summer, White mobs burned down entire Black towns, and lynched, fatally shot and burned dozens of African-Americans at the stake. Nearly 100 years later, Griffith’s signature movie is still heralded as the greatest technical contribution to modern cinema. It is still taught in contemporary film programs and broadcast on public television. Nate Parker’s jacking of that title is cunning and appropriation at its finest.

I wasn’t able to go to this year’s Sundance film festival where ”The Birth of a Nation” premiered and picked up major awards. But from what I’ve heard from my friends who were there, and after watching some of Parker’s compelling interviews, it seems to me that the people who were clapping the loudest were in fact, us. And not the passive us, the very radical, progressive and Black us.

So sorry naysayers. Give me Nat Turner. Give me Toussaint. Give me Dessalines. Give me Nanny. Give me Zumbi. Give me Boukman. Give me Tula. Give me 1811. Give me the Saamaka. Give me Sojourner. Give me Denmark. Give me Harriet. Give me all of them on the big screen, any day, any year from now until forever.

Shantrelle P. Lewis is a 2012-2013 Andy Warhol Curatorial Fellow and 2013 United Nations Programme for People of African Descent Fellow. Lewis is currently researching ties between the Dutch Caribbean and the African Diaspora at-large and she is directing and producing a documentary about the Dutch blackface tradition Zwarte Piet. A version of this essay first appeared on Lewis’ site, shoppeblack.com.