While likely scheduled for distribution independently of each other, the pending release of “Birth of a Nation” and the selection of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “The 13th” for last night’s opening of the New York Film Festival practically amount to joint appearances. The first is a narrative film written, directed by and starring Nate Parker as Nat Turner, the leader of an 1831 slave rebellion, that opens everywhere on October 7th, the same day that DuVernay’s documentary about the prison-industrial complex is released to Netflix.
Put succinctly, these are two films that must be seen as complements to each other. In explaining why forms of slavery linger on to this day, DuVernay’s film starts with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery and that was the centerpiece of Stephen Spielberg’s vastly overrated “Lincoln”. If you read the fine print of the amendment, you will see that it stipulates: “Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.” It is that “except as a punishment for crime” that is key to understanding how the phenomenon of what author Douglas Blackmon called “Slavery by Another Name” continues to this day.
“The 13th” begins by describing the quandary faced by the southern bourgeoisie once slavery was abolished. Without Black people no longer in bondage and free to rely on subsistence farming, how could you secure the cheap labor that was necessary to get the economy going? The answer was convict labor. From the earliest days of reconstruction, laws were passed in the south to impose stiff prison terms on offenses as minor as loitering—used of course on a discriminatory basis against Blacks. As convicts, they could be forced to do the same kind of work they used to do as slaves and with even less concern about their comfort or their health.
The efforts at identifying Blacks with crime was an ongoing one. Key to that was depicting the Deep South as a victim of Northern aggression and the connivance of the freed slaves who were savages with nothing but criminal mayhem in their hearts, particularly raping white women. In 1905 Thomas Dixon Jr. wrote a book titled “The Clansman” that was key to the revival of the KKK. A decade later D.W. Griffith made “The Birth of a Nation” that was based on Dixon’s book and that became a wildly popular film in both the north and the south, so much so that Woodrow Wilson organized a private screening at the White House.
When asked by Filmmaker Magazine why he chose the same title as Griffith’s KKK propaganda, Nate Parker replied:
From sanitized truths about our forefathers to mis-education regarding this country’s dark days of slavery, we have refused to honestly confront the many afflictions of our past. This disease of denial has served as a massive stumbling block on our way to healing from those wounds. Addressing Griffith’s Birth of a Nation is one of the many steps necessary in treating this disease. Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today.
I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, 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.
I will return to Ava DuVernay’s documentary but will now make the case for Nate Parker’s film being the first made by an American filmmaker that is both artistically and politically on the same level as Gillo Pontecorvo’s “Burn”. Only 36 years old, Parker has made a breakthrough film that is my choice for best picture of 2016 that will almost inevitably not be dislodged from that status even as the director is now being dogged by controversy about a rape charge made against him in 1999.
Like “12 Years a Slave”, a much heralded 2013 film by Black British director Steve McQueen, much of “The Birth of a Nation” is a searing depiction of slaves being brutalized to the point where you need to cover your eyes. In one scene, we see a slave master using a hammer to knock out the teeth of a slave in chains who is on a hunger strike. Without the teeth, it is easier to put a funnel into his mouth and force-feed him just as is the case with 3 prisoners in Wisconsin this year who were protesting solitary confinement.
What distinguishes Parker’s film from McQueen’s is that it is not merely a grim parade of suffering that is the British director’s hallmark and something Armond White once described as follows:
For McQueen, cruelty is the juicy-arty part; it continues the filmmaker’s interest in sado-masochistic display, highlighted in his previous features Hunger and Shame. Brutality is McQueen’s forte. As with his fine-arts background, McQueen’s films resemble museum installations: the stories are always abstracted into a series of shocking, unsettling events.
For Parker, the real story is Nat Turner’s religious, moral and political evolution from a preacher hired out to plantation owners to pacify their slaves with hopes for the afterlife into a rebel determined to fight for his freedom until death.
The film begins with the young Nat Turner reading a book he purloined from his master’s library and reading by candlelight a la Abe Lincoln. When the master’s wife learns about his ability, she invites him into the library to see the books at leisure. When he approaches a shelf, she pulls him away and says that those will not be of use to him. He only needs to read one book, the bible that she slips into his hands.
At first he feels a sense of pride in being able to deliver sermons to the slaves that lifts their spirits but eventually the cognitive dissonance between the cruelty he sees delivered upon them diurnally and the “pie in the sky” he preaches reaches a breaking point after his wife is raped and beaten by a three men out patrolling for runaway slaves.
Besides the character development and dialog that are at a level much higher than any Hollywood film I have seen in years, “The Birth of a Nation” is a cinematographic wonder with poetic renderings of nature, humanity and the southern agrarian milieu. The white characters are universally despicable but not in the cartoonish way of most films about the slave epoch especially Quentin Tarantino’s stupid burlesque of the period.
Many of you are probably aware that William Styron wrote a novel titled “The Confessions of Nat Turner” in 1967 during a period of deep Black militancy. Styron’s portrayal of Turner had little to do with Nate Parker’s film. He found Turner to be a “dangerous religious lunatic and . . . psychopathic monster” based on his reading of Turner’s confession to a court-appointed lawyer named Thomas Gray. Styron’s version of Turner was so offensive that a rejoinder titled “William Styron’s Nat Turner: Ten Black Writers Respond” eventually appeared. In anticipating his later morphing into a bigoted reactionary, Eugene Genovese wrote a long defense of Styron in the N.Y. Review of Books.
In reading a 2008 NY Times article about Styron and the Nat Turner controversy, I found myself wondering what Turner actually said in the confessions. As it happens, it has been posted on the Internet and is well worth reading. Much of it has the rhetoric of a sermon but there are a couple of sentences that help you to understand why Nat Turner became a rebel:
And the negroes found fault, and murmurred against me, saying that if they had my sense they would not serve any master in the world. And about this time I had a vision–and I saw white spirits and black spirits engaged in battle, and the sun was darkened–the thunder rolled in the Heavens, and blood flowed in streams–and I heard a voice saying, “Such is your luck, such you are called to see, and let it come rough or smooth, you must surely bare it.”
For Styron, Nat Turner’s rebellion was not that much different than the advance of an unnamed former slave in D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” upon a white southern belle who generates so much fear that she throws herself off a cliff rather than submit to him. The Wikipedia article on Styron’s novel describes his version of the scene that is the climax of Parker’s film:
From the very beginning, however, Nat’s rebellion goes all wrong. His recruits get drunk and waste precious time plundering and raping. A crazed, axe-wielding, sex-obsessed slave named Will begins ridiculing Nat’s leadership and attempting to seize control of the tiny slave army.
Since rape is a key event in Parker’s movie as well, but more logically one involving a white assault on a Black woman, much has been made about the controversy that surfaced on August 16th when it was revealed that he was accused but then cleared of rape charges when he was a student at Penn State. His accuser committed suicide in 2012 when she was 30 years old. The news led the prestigious American Film Institute to cancel a screening. Parker is scheduled to appear on “Sixty Minutes” tomorrow night but I am not sure I am interested in hearing about the case.
Even if he was guilty of the heinous act, that does not make “The Birth of a Nation” any less worthy of the accolades it has received. Long after Nate Parker is dead and gone, people will be watching this film in the same way that others have viewed Griffith’s classic. Its message is toxic but it was an important film as even James Agee argued. While Griffith was never accused of such a crime, his film was arguably responsible in part for thousands of lynchings. The legacy of Parker’s film will be one as a significant contribution to the art of cinema and the Black struggle. His own life is incidental to that.
Returning now to Ava DuVernay’s masterpiece of a documentary, it overlaps in considerable ways with Parker’s film since they both are reflections on one of America’s original sins: slavery.
“The 13th” is a fearless work that is not afraid to take on sacred cows including Bill Clinton who was once referred to as “our first Black president” by Toni Morrison in 1996. DuVernay provides compelling detail about how a series of presidents have re-instituted “slavery by another name” by making black skin a signifier for crime.
It all started with Nixon’s “southern strategy” that went hand in hand with a war on drugs that has been essential to the carceration epidemic that has resulted in 1 out of 3 Blacks ending up behind bars in their lifetime as opposed to 1 out of 17 whites. Nixon’s aide John Erlichman put it this way:
The Nixon campaign in 1968, and the Nixon White House after that, had two enemies: the antiwar left and black people. You understand what I’m saying? We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course we did.
Ronald Reagan’s aide Lee Atwater explained how you can be a racist without actually using words like “nigger”:
You start out in 1954 by saying, “Nigger, nigger, nigger.” By 1968 you can’t say “nigger”—that hurts you, backfires. So you say stuff like, uh, forced busing, states’ rights, and all that stuff, and you’re getting so abstract. Now, you’re talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you’re talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is, blacks get hurt worse than whites.… “We want to cut this,” is much more abstract than even the busing thing, uh, and a hell of a lot more abstract than “Nigger, nigger.”
Now everybody knows that people like Nixon, Reagan, George Bush father and son, and Donald Trump are racist pigs but what about Bill Clinton, the “first Black president”?
DuVernay calls upon expert witnesses who are much less impressed with the former president and his wife now running for president who referred to young Blacks as “super-predators” in 1996, a term that had the same kind of loaded significance as a scene from D.W. Griffith’s film.
Leaving aside words, some of Clinton’s critics who appear in the film cite his 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill as far more harmful than any legislation backed by Republicans. It was responsible for mandatory minimums and the “three strikes” life sentences that have filled our prisons.
Michelle Alexander, the author of “The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness”, a book that has obviously influenced DuVernay’s film, is interviewed throughout the film and is one of many very informed and eloquent social critics that make “The 13th” must-viewing. In a Nation Magazine article titled “Why Hillary Clinton Doesn’t Deserve the Black Vote”, she explains why (it should be mentioned that she had problems with Bernie Sanders who also voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill):
An oft-repeated myth about the Clinton administration is that although it was overly tough on crime back in the 1990s, at least its policies were good for the economy and for black unemployment rates. The truth is more troubling. As unemployment rates sank to historically low levels for white Americans in the 1990s, the jobless rate among black men in their 20s who didn’t have a college degree rose to its highest level ever. This increase in joblessness was propelled by the skyrocketing incarceration rate.
Why is this not common knowledge? Because government statistics like poverty and unemployment rates do not include incarcerated people. As Harvard sociologist Bruce Western explains: “Much of the optimism about declines in racial inequality and the power of the US model of economic growth is misplaced once we account for the invisible poor, behind the walls of America’s prisons and jails.” When Clinton left office in 2001, the true jobless rate for young, non-college-educated black men (including those behind bars) was 42 percent. This figure was never reported. Instead, the media claimed that unemployment rates for African Americans had fallen to record lows, neglecting to mention that this miracle was possible only because incarceration rates were now at record highs. Young black men weren’t looking for work at high rates during the Clinton era because they were now behind bars—out of sight, out of mind, and no longer counted in poverty and unemployment statistics.
To make matters worse, the federal safety net for poor families was torn to shreds by the Clinton administration in its effort to “end welfare as we know it.” In his 1996 State of the Union address, given during his re-election campaign, Clinton declared that “the era of big government is over” and immediately sought to prove it by dismantling the federal welfare system known as Aid to Families With Dependent Children (AFDC). The welfare-reform legislation that he signed—which Hillary Clinton ardently supported then and characterized as a success as recently as 2008—replaced the federal safety net with a block grant to the states, imposed a five-year lifetime limit on welfare assistance, added work requirements, barred undocumented immigrants from licensed professions, and slashed overall public welfare funding by $54 billion (some was later restored).