We Need To Talk About How Badly This Movie Treats Women

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu.
Toward the beginning of The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker shows us an image from which we’re never supposed to recover. Nat Turner (Parker) and his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) are going on a door-to-door gospel revival: Nat must preach to “wayward” slaves the holy benefits of obedience and hard work, and his master Samuel gets a handful of cash in return. The montage shows how slavery forces the negro preacher to compromise his own soul, and, importantly, gives viewers a look at the way slaves on other plantations are treated.

Nat watches as the white daughter in a slave-owning family runs across a porch. She’s playfully pulling a Black slave girl (around her own age) on a makeshift leash. The music dies down, and the two girls run in slow motion. It’s chilling, and Parker’s camera wants us to shudder at the sight of it. Except the scene reflects exactly what Parker as director is doing to the women in this movie: stringing them along like props, turning sexual assault into a set piece.

Two rape scenes serve as tipping points for Turner’s rebellion in the movie. Both have been widely reported as historically inaccurate at best, and ham-fisted propaganda at worst. The two sequences are both, and more: Birth of a Nation focuses on how sexual assault disfigures women, and how men — husbands and masters — process these traumas as attacks on their masculinity.

When Nat first sees Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King), he convinces his master to buy her. She’s pale-faced and mad with disease, but he sees something in her that he wants to save. She lunges at him when he tries to help her out of the wagon at the plantation. Samuel tells Nat’s mother to nurse Cherry Ann back to health. She does, and Cherry reemerges ready for a new life. It’s a weirdly conveyed love story — Nat thanks his mother for “making her look so pretty” — and then falls in love with (and subsequently marries) the new charge. Cherry was a gift for Samuel’s sister, and she lives on a neighboring plantation. When she’s gang raped by slave catchers, Nat begs his master for permission to visit her.

This is when things get wacky: When Nat asks Samuel to let him leave and see to Cherry’s health, there’s little dialogue. Nat shuffles into Samuel’s room, barely explaining what’s happened, only that he’s desperate to see her immediately. He talks about the attack in broad strokes: Some men got ahold of her.

Both slave and master can fill in the blanks as to what happens when these women fall into the wrong hands.
Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu.
The same thing happens again, when a drunken dinner party guest asks for Esther (Gabrielle Union) to be delivered to his bed. And it is a delivery: Isaiah, the light-skinned house slave, tells Esther’s husband that a white man has requested his wife. Esther’s husband Hark (Colman Domingo) says he won’t allow it, and Nat tries to reason with both of them. The way Parker frames the scene, the men look like the Three Stooges, hunched over, talking about a botched gag. The clownishness of this scene is unintentional. But it’s the most telling moment regarding how this movie treats violence against women: These men have no idea what they’re talking about, no idea what’s being asked of this woman, no clue as to how to handle a rape that they wrongly feel is actually happening to them.

In a speech to the Rape Foundation last month, Viola Davis shared some powerful words about sexual violence. She’s spoken before about how her sister was sexually abused, but in her recent remarks, the How to Get Away with Murder star talked about how this kind of violence infects entire communities. "Myself, my mother, my sisters, my friend Rebecca, my friend from childhood, we all have one thing in common: We are all survivors of sexual assault in some way, shape, or form,” she said. Surviving meant “being alive after the death of,” she explained.

Parker's film shows only how the men survive. Union gets a few brief (if intense) minutes on screen, tears streaming down her face. If only the camera lingered longer on her, or gave her a moment alone, it could have been a really moving scene. But before we’re allowed to process Esther’s pain, her rape is framed as her husband’s loss. “Where is your God now,” he sneers to Nat, walking his wife back to their shack.

Part of the power of Nat Turner’s story is that he understood slavery’s evil not only because he could see the evidence around him, but inside himself. Parker's portrait of Turner overwhelms with physical evidence of slavery — men beaten, women violated — to make some kind of case that its hero was pushed into his destiny, without allowing the women in the film time or space to consider their own.

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