I just finished watching The Birth of a Nation (2016), which was released for home viewing today. While there has been a great deal of excitement, frustration and disappointment surrounding this film, I was surprisingly pleased. Below I provide some immediate, working thoughts.
Certainly, The Birth of a Nation ignores the role of Black women as active agents of change and almost only shows them in more domestic roles, provides yet another recent narrative focused on enslavement*, frequently forces audiences to gaze at suffering Black bodies**, and does not focus on the actual rebellion as much as implied in advertising.
(* Although, given that Blacks were enslaved in the United States or what became the United States from at least 1619 until 1865–not counting convict leasing or the New Jim Crow as forms of enslavement–there are few other possible narratives to select from.)
(**Susan Sontag reminds us that the camera is a dictator.)
However, unlike the absolutely horrible cinematic iterations of Black History embodied in Hairspray (2007) or The Help (2011), as discussed in my dissertation, for example,The Birth of a Nation tells a story–regardless of the aspects that are specifically “true” or not–that accurately represents the relevant hopes and fears of everyday life for Whites and Blacks in the South in the early 19th century.
Compared to The Butler (2013), for instance, The Birth of a Nation is the tragedy that United States History actually is. I am always impressed when a film is brave enough to go against the grain in Hollywood and ends tragically. The Birth of a Nation shows representations of Black people (men and women) who are articulate and strong, who are determined to press forward, who see beyond the social constructions of their society.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of film about the Civil Rights Revolution of the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s, The Birth of a Nation makes uses of Black extra diegetic music, including music by Nina Simone.
The Birth of a Nation–read as an independent text, without considering its author or anything else—is a beautiful film.
Will non-expert viewers of The Birth of a Nation be better off by watching the film? Yes. The film is emotionally-gripping. While certainly lacking context, The Birth of a Nation would be an excellent choice for those wishing to be introduced to the horrors of enslavement. I anticipate this film being a go-to for classrooms around the nation. Viewers will be left with unforgettable sounds and sights.
The Birth of a Nation reminds us, shows us in excruciating detail how cruel White people can be. It shows us in specific motions how this both depressed and inspired enslaved peoples.
The Birth of a Nation depicts the “birth” of the United States because the United States is founded on White Supremacy and Black/non-White resistance to this ideology. The Birth of a Nation warns what oppressed people can do and will do when they are desperately hungry for fairness and freedom.
The Birth of a Nation could also be said to represent the “birth” of the society that emerged in the post-Nat Turner Rebellion society.
Unlike the original The Birth of a Nation, this one makes it clear that Black people played and play a role in creating the United States, a very important one.
Have you seen the film? What did you think?
Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda