There’s a fair chance you won’t see The Birth of a Nation, the new movie about the Nat Turner slave rebellion. It’s been mired in controversy since troubling rape allegations against its writer-director and star, Nate Parker, resurfaced in August. Since then, his response has been insensitive at best. (Parker was acquitted in 1999. His accuser died by suicide in 2012.) But even The Birth of a Nation’s greatest critics — and the people who refuse to see it — can appreciate the significance of the movie outside itself. It’s all in the title. Parker told Anderson Cooper this week that he settled on it before writing a single line of the script. And what a choice of words.
Parker named his movie after 1915’s The Birth of a Nation. The three-hour long silent film was the first movie screened inside the White House, to the delight of director D. W. Griffith and President Woodrow Wilson. It was also the first American blockbuster. And today, it is regarded by film scholars as “the foundation of modern cinema” with its pioneering use of sweeping narrative arc and innovative camera work that is now standard in Hollywood.
It’s also a sick white supremacist fantasy: racist propaganda under the guise of a fact-based film. The movie — based on The Clansman by Thomas Dixon Jr. — is a grotesquely revisionist history of the end of the Civil War and Reconstruction. It’s a horrifying world in which it is Black men (played by white actors in Blackface) who terrorize Southern whites, not the other way around. They are portrayed as brutish barbarians, sexual predators, and vengeful delinquents who victimize former slave owners and rape white virgins. The noble heroes of this movie? The Ku Klux Klan, of course, who rectify the injustice against the Poor White Man.
But the most dangerous thing about 1915's The Birth of a Nation is that it spurred a swell of rabid and violent racism in a very real way — namely, the KKK, whose numbers and vitriol soared after the its release. “[T]his film motivate[d] the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent,” Parker explained to Filmmaker magazine. (If there’s a silver lining here, it’s that it also galvanized a nascent NAACP into action to discredit and ban the film.) As Parker put it, “There’s blood on that title.” His reappropriation of it is a bold bid to scrub out that ugly stain. “I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America,” he told Filmmaker, “to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.” This message is especially prescient in the wake of police killings and systemic prejudice against Black Americans. It’s a rallying cry in the vein of Black Lives Matter. “From now on, The Birth of a Nation is attached to Nat Turner, one of the bravest revolutionaries this country has ever seen,” he told Vulture.
Unfortunately, it’s more likely that, from now on, The Birth of a Nation will be attached to Nate Parker. The cruel irony is that Parker’s noble intent to redefine that title may only further vilify it. While the film is receiving mostly positive reviews, some are vowing not to see it. Some say it is simply not good enough to defend. Perhaps the timing of its Sundance premiere last January amidst the #OscsarsSoWhite conversation set it up for more early praise than it deserved. At this year’s Oscars, the film may be snubbed entirely. So is The Birth of a Nation a title that will be forever tainted? Right now, it’s the name of both a virulently racist piece of KKK propaganda and a fraught film written, directed by, and starring an accused rapist. But who knows? Maybe in another 100 years, somebody else will try to reclaim the name yet again — or perhaps it will have been buried forever.