I wrote this piece for a news site a couple of weeks ago and with the recent tragedy at Wits Junction, I thought to share it. Particularly because my thoughts around The Birth of a Nation engage the topic of toxic masculinity and rape culture. The older I get the more convinced I am that silence at injustice towards women equals being implicit in the perpetration of that violence. As I reject the masculinity within which rape culture thrives, so I reject Wits’ response (or lack thereof) to #RapeAtJunction. In that vein, I reject The Birth of a Nation. The movie has been billed to show in Nigeria and Ghana, and will possibly make its way to Southern Africa soon.
One of the biggest movies to come out of the United States of America (USA) this year is The Birth of a Nation (TBOAN), a reading of the life of Nate Turner, a slave and preacher who led one of the bloodiest slave rebellions in America in 1831. It’s a story that challenges the pervasive narrative that black slaves were passive and did nothing to secure their own independence. It is one of a collective claiming their agency in their fight for freedom. No doubt a narrative we can identify with in Africa from our very own liberation movements dethroning colonialism.
Written, directed, produced and starring Nate Parker, TBOAN borrows its title from a 1915 movie directed by D. W. Griffith. A Klu Klux Klan glorifier who cast white people in black face to play black slaves who were simple and sexually aggressive towards white women, Griffith and his screenplay were and still are gravely problematic. Yet many have lauded the film for its technical savvy in cinematography, separating it from the narrative it helped weave into Hollywood about black people. In naming his own screenplay the same name, Parker makes a clear statement against Griffith’s racist sensibilities that, continue to stubbornly plaque film in the USA. This is one of the reasons why TBOAN is important. It seeks to redeem the black body from the creative treatment accorded it by one of Hollywood’s defining productions. To even have gotten funding at all for a movie like this is significant.
So, notwithstanding my aversion to slave movies, I see why Nate Parker’s TBOAN, in the way it has been presented, is necessary in Hollywood. But unfortunately, it is a convoluted story. In the publicity drive after its release in October, there has been a renewed interest in Parker. In 1999 when Parker was a student at Penn State University, he and his friend Jean McGianni Celestin allegedly raped a young woman. He was acquitted of the rape charges, and Celestin was found guilty, sentenced and on appeal, his conviction was overturned. The young woman was allegedly harassed by Parker, Celestin and their cohort, sued the university for negligence and settled out of court. She tried to commit suicide a couple of times and in 2012, she succeeded. Parker and Celestin are still friends, and continue to work together.
This interest in Parker’s history with sexual assault has brought to the fore various conversations about male privilege and toxic masculinity, rape culture, the black voice in film and its audience thereof, among other pertinent discussions. These are not new topics. Many of them are the mainstay of social justice discourse that this generation has found language for and continuously engages on; and they are far from resolved.
Being at the centre of these discussions, Parker has not been able to dodge any of these conversations as they come up in his media engagement. Fox Searchlight Pictures is said to have made arrangements for this narrative and one can understand why; what with the record $17.5 million distribution deal they signed with Parker. But has that been enough?
Throughout this media engagement, Parker has been the ultimate expression of male privilege. His insistence on the not-guilty verdict has been less redemptive than he hoped. It has shown an ever-self-preserving, toxic masculinity that is steeped in its lack of empathy. That is the bone of contention I have with this movie. Being a movie anchored on black bodies claiming agency against white enslavers, it is essentially a movie about power dynamics in body politics. So I am unable to reconcile Parker’s assumed understanding of interracial body politics in antebellum America with his willful lack of understanding of body politics and power dynamics between men and women today. How would he be able to effectively tell of a deliberate plundering of black bodies in a racist history when he does not understand the modern day plundering of women’s bodies in the patriarchal present? Because if he understood gender dynamics of today, he would understand the role of empathy in sexual assault cases. Alleged or not.
Gabrielle Union, one of the actors in TBOAN, said in a press junket promoting the movie, that in choosing to work with him, she hopes that he learns about the problem with toxic masculinity and that she leaves him a better man. She mentioned the hope of redemption – his redemption. The possible redemption she sees in him, I do not. Not when he continues to see the narrative on the sexual assault case as one that should be countered, and by an arrogant insistence on his not guilty verdict. Especially because not guilty does not always imply innocence.
This refusal to understand is steeped in his ignorance of rape culture. 1 in every 3 women is physically or sexually assaulted, worldwide. No, we don’t have over 2 billion sexual assault cases going through our legal systems globally. Nor do we have millions of successful convictions. In fact, the conviction rate in South Africa is an estimated 4% – 8% . This discouraging record is one of the reasons why rape culture continues to prevail. Our justice system, globally, is fraught.
So watching TBOAN for me would be agreeing to witness a seminal story of power reclamation and agency being told through the lens of a man who proudly wields a toxic masculinity at the expense of women. I do not believe that that kind of man will do such a story justice. I loathe to think of how he would portray women in that story – as if women have not been erased or misrepresented enough from history. I will not be spectator to that. So as this movie continues to tumble in the box office in the USA and North America, perhaps there is hope that when enough noise is made against bigotry, justice can be served, even if its extrajudicial.