Arts & Culture, University News

IFF screens ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Past allegations of sexual assault against director, star, producer of film cloud its reception

By
Senior Staff Writer
Friday, October 7, 2016

Students file into Granoff Center to watch “The Birth of a Nation,” which depicts Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. The film’s reception has been shaped by controversy over allegations of sexual assault against its director.

The Ivy Film Festival held an advance screening Wednesday night of “The Birth of a Nation,” which tells the story of Nat Turner’s 48-hour slave rebellion of 1831 in Virginia. Nate Parker, the star, producer, screenplay writer and director of the film, has come under scrutiny in recent months after charges of sexual assault against him came to light.

In 1999, when Parker was a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, he was accused of raping a freshman woman but was later acquitted. Jean McGianni Celestin, a co-writer of the screenplay, was accused and convicted of sexual assault for the same incident.

The victim’s clothing, sobriety and previous consensual sexual encounter with Parker were brought up in court in defense of Parker’s innocence. During the legal processes, the victim cited several incidents of harassment by Parker and Celestin. After these incidents had been reported to Penn State, the university failed to discipline the two men. When Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, Penn State agreed to delay his sentencing until after he graduated.

In 2012, the victim died by suicide.

This violent history sets the backdrop for the release of “The Birth of a Nation,” which touches on several subjects including slavery, racism, torture and sexual violence.

The Ivy Film Festival, aware of the sensitive nature of the film and its director’s history, provided support resources including a room with Sexual Harassment and Assault Resources and Education advocates and a separate space for one-on-one conversations with representatives from Counseling and Psychological Services. The resources were placed directly outside of the screening room.

“We did not want to inflict harm on any members of the community,” IFF wrote in an email to The Herald. IFF “also did not want to perpetrate the erasure of Nat Turner’s and enslaved peoples’ contribution to the founding of this nation, as well as the omission of legacies of institutionalized anti-black violence that (persists) today.”

The film followed Nat Turner’s life as an enslaved preacher. Throughout the film, Turner gets increasingly zealous as he travels to preach to fellow slaves. He witnesses gruesome violence on other plantations and by the end of the film realizes that for every Bible passage white slaveowners use to justify slavery, there is another urging slaves to rise against their oppressors.

Following the film, a panel of professors, including the moderator Françoise Hamlin, an associate professor of history and Africana studies, discussed the film. The other panelists included Brian Meeks, professor and chair of Africana Studies, Emily Owens, assistant professor of history and Andre Willis, professor of religious studies.

Willis was “disappointed with the flattening of (Nat’s) character,” which portrayed him as a one-dimensional heroic, masculine figure, he said. In the movie, Nat Turner claimed God was speaking to him, which led to the rebellion.

But in reality, “rebellions were rooted in African-American understanding of Christianity as it was taught to them,” Willis said, adding that in the film, “Turner’s impetus for change was the sexual assault of female figures. The plot twists were at the expense of women being violated or hurt.”

Willis said he would rather have seen Parker stay within one of the rebellion’s and the film’s core messages: that “religion is both dangerous and beautiful. It’s capable of beauty and great joy but also terror,” he said.

“This film relies on recognizable tropes on slavery in North America that (trouble) me,” Owens said. There was an absence of labor and a portrayal of violence as extraordinary — instead of as an everyday occurrence perpetrated by slave owners — she added.

The film was very masculine, Hamlin said. “History shows that women and children were part of this (slave rebellion) movement, but you’d never know that from watching this movie.”

“Women were cast as supporting roles for the central male figure. There’s a near utter silence of most of the female characters, especially those who were victims of sexual assault. Violence against women became a useful prop for men to talk to each other and make decisions,” Owens said.

The film intermingled fiction with nonfiction. For example, there is no historical record that Turner’s wife was beaten and sexually assaulted, though Parker chose to include that scene. Secondly, after the rebellion when slave owners are searching for Turner and his rebels, the film shows Turner giving himself up so that the deaths of others will cease. But the historical understanding of Turner’s Rebellion suggests he was caught. This contributed to the perception of Turner as a “martyr or Messiah image,” Hamlin said.

When an audience member asked the panelists if viewers should read the film differently because of Parker’s actions, Willis said he did not have a definitive answer but encouraged the audience to “keep raising the question. The problem is so fraught given the history of sexual violence in America.”

IFF saw the screening and panel as “an opportunity to engage in a series of crucial yet difficult discussions around intersectionality and how we can reconcile the relationship between the art and the artist,” according to the statement IFF emailed to The Herald. “We also wanted to provide avenues for (the) audience to critique ‘The Birth of a Nation.’ This emerged in the talk-back panel, as the panelists and audience members addressed the ways in which the film … did and did not succeed to provide accurate, or equitable, representation of the event and era.”

“All I know is I probably wouldn’t have paid to see this movie. Paying for this trauma is not something I do lightly. I work with this stuff for a living,” Owens said in response to an audience member’s question on if it was possible to separate the art from the artist.

Several panelists commented on Parker’s evasive and seemingly apathetic responses when media outlets question him on his sexual assault charges. Parker has publicly denied an apology to the victim’s family. He has attempted to bring the focus away from his charges and back to the film.

But “to talk about the history of slavery is to talk about the history of sexual violence. The two are not separable,” Owens said.