The (Re)Birth of a Nation?: Race, Rape, and Nate Parker

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by Tameka Bradley Hobbs

I, like many thousands around the nation, have been anxiously anticipating the feature release of Nate Parker’s film, “Birth of a Nation”. It broke records at the Sundance Film Festival, garnering a $17.5 million offer from Fox Searchlight, the highest bid ever for an indie film.

During the American Black Film Festival in Miami this summer, I attended Parker’s session, during which he enraptured the audience with his awe-inspiring story of the film’s origins. The room felt like a camp meeting, with Parker acting as an itinerant minister, shouting the praises to God for his divine intervention at every turn. The exclusive clips he shared with the audience were nothing short of sensational. At last, we would have a cinematic interpretation of a rebellion of enslaved Africans in America, yet another powerful tool in my arsenal to combat the image of cowering, docile black people who calmly awaited “Massa Lincoln” to set them free.

But, to quote one of my favorite lines from the HBO series “Game of Thrones,” my joy over the film has “turned to ashes in my mouth.” On August 12th, Variety Magazine published an article detailing the 1999 rape allegations against the director. Parker was a student and a member of the wrestling team at Penn State University when he and his roommate, Jean Celestin (who co-wrote “Birth” with Parker) were accused of raping, along with another man, a drunk and unconscious eighteen-year-old white co-ed. Charges were dropped against Parker because he had engaged in consensual sex with the victim during a previous encounter—a justification that is beyond maddening. The conviction against Celestin was eventually dropped, in part because the accuser refused to be victimized again by having to testify once more.

The situation became even more heart-rending when it was reveals that the victim committed suicide in 2012. In a subsequent Vanity story, the victim’s brother, identified only as Johnny, he revealed that the rape devastated his sister and left her forever changed.

Beyond the horrific deals surround this case, the details of the allegations stoke some of the most painful tropes in African American history, evincing parallel storylines that are simultaneous ironic and comic tragic.

In what initially seemed to be a genius move, Parker ripped the title of his film from the 1915 movie by D. W. Griffith, based on the racist novel “The Clansman” by Thomas Dixon. The original “Birth of the Nation” remains a hallmark of American filmmaking, because of its standing as the first major blockbuster film as well as the terrible stereotypes of Reconstruction and African Americans ever committed to the silver screen. The attempt by Parker, a black man who co-wrote, produced, and directed a very black film showing all the signs of a blockbuster, to reclaim and remodel that historic title was a move as bold as it was admirable.

Instead, it appears, Nate Parker will choke on the tragic irony of his choice of movie title.

Among the highlights of the original film was an attempted interracial rape. Gus, a Union Army captain portrayed by a white actor in blackface, tries to propose marriage (read: rape) Flora Cameron, daughter of the upstanding and long-suffering white Southern family caught in the vicious grasps of Negro domination known as Reconstruction, as Griffith imagined it. Like any good Southern white woman, Flora would rather die than submit to the sexual advances of a black man. After a length chase scene, Flora dramatically leaps to her death over the edge of a cliff. The tragedy of Flora’s suicide is resolved with the arrival of the heroic knights of the Ku Klux Klan, to drive the ignorant black masses back to their place and restore the rightful racial order. And they also lynch Gus.

The Gus-Flora dynamic was no mere plot twist; it struck at the core of white anxiety over black advancement. In the mind of most Southerners, and many more white Americans outside of the region, black political equality equaled the sexual access of black men to white women, which meant miscegenation, mongrelization, and the end of the white race and white hegemony. Historian Jacqueline Dowd Hall characterized this obsession as “a kind of acceptable folk pornography.” The defense of white womanhood became the order of the day and the main justification for the scourge of lynching in America, which claimed nearly 5,000 lives between the 1880 and the 1930s. However, as Ida B. Wells-Barnett indicated in her 1892 study Southern Horrors, less than one-quarter of the lynchings she investigated involved accusations of rape or attempted rape.

In 1915, “The Birth of a Nation” traded on stereotypes of black male hypersexuality. In 2016, Parker and Celestin are now cast as modern day Gusses, conjuring up the American phantasm of the predatory and lascivious black men whose main desire in life is sexual conquest of white women. However, unlike their theatrical counterparts, Parker, Celestin, and their other partner in crime, completed the act of intercourse, fulfilling their roles as bestial and dangerous black men. Mirroring her theatrical counterpart, the victim eventually committed suicide.

Life sometimes, in the most terrible ways, imitates art.

But what are we to do with the brilliant art of Nate Parker? Regrettably, these revelations invite comparisons to the dilemma many faced as the evidence of Bill Cosby’s decades of sexual predation came to light: can one effectively separate the beauty of the art from the heinous behavior of the artist who created them? As I have previously written about the work of Bill Cosby, my inclination is to separate the art and the flawed human who created it. Speaking as an educator and a student of my people, we need this film so badly. Right now, I'm leaning towards continuing to support it, but that may change in the coming weeks. The culture of rape must be stopped, and holding Nate Parker accountable for past bad behavior, and continued tone-deafness, is a part of that process.

I am only certain of one thing: somewhere, D.W. Griffith and Thomas Dixon are sharing a good laugh at Nate Parker’s expense.

Photo: Shutterstock

Tameka Bradley Hobbs, Ph.D., is a historian, author, and social commentator who lives in South Florida.

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