Monday, October 31, 2016

Conspiracy Theorists Guide to The Birth of a Nation


   Before I saw The Birth of a Nation I, like many of you, have been bombarded with controversy surrounding this film. Unlike the original 1915 American silent film The Birth of a Nation (The Clansman) that revered the KKK and was screened at the White House, this version by Nate Parker focuses on the life of Rev. Nat Turner and his slave revolt that took place in 1831 in Southampton County, Virginia. From two-faced people who praised The Great Debaters now crucifying Nate Parker about a decades old rape allegation, to people critiquing its weekend box office numbers like its a rap album trying to go platinum. From black feminists who didn't see the film debating about scenes that didn't exist, to white folks writing bruised ego reviews because they looked bad. Everybody and their dog has had something to say about this film that has evoking many people to feel some kinda way. Many reviews have been calling it a strait box office flop. My question is, how Sway? How? To begin, this was a $100,000 personal investment for Parker. That's how much he put up. The rest of the $8.5 million production budget was made possible by other investors. Premiering at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the largest U.S. independent festival which annually takes place in Utah, The Birth of a Nation was honored as the Best of the Fest and won the Audience Award of a U.S. Drama and the U.S. Grand Jury Prize. To get this kind of reception at this festival is BIG! It was so big that following its premiere Fox Searchlight Pictures, The Weinstein CompanySony Pictures Entertainment and Netflix got in a bidding war to buy it. That doesn't look like a lemon to me. Parker eventually sold its "worldwide rights" to Fox Searchlight Pictures for an unprecedented $17.5 million. Remember, this was a $100,000 personal investment for Parker. When the film was finally released in 2,105 theaters across America on October 7th, the opening weekend brought in $7 million. At the date of this writing, the film has grossed $15 million; a $6.5 million profit when you subtract the $8.5 million production budget. The only way to describe that is profitable and this profit is not even considering its Lifetime Gross potential. For example, The Color Purple had a budget of $15 million and in a generation has grossed $98.4 million to date. Naw The Birth of a Nation didn't have no $245 million production budget like Star Wars: The Force Awakens, a package that was flipped almost 9 times since December 2015 to reach $2 billion worldwide, but The Birth of a Nation is still a profitable investment that will appreciate in value over time. It's modest slow money.

   One of the main criticisms surrounding this film, that has been levied at Nate Parker, has been some 1999 rape charges Parker was acquitted for in 2001. I cannot say for sure what went down yet the court transcripts can offer those of you some insight. What I will say is that black actresses, actors, producers, directors and etc. are treated very different in Hollywood and in the Media. For example, take white writer, actor and Oscar-winning director Roman Polanski who was arrested and charged in 1977 for rape by use of drugs, perversion, sodomylewd and lascivious act upon a child under 14, and furnishing a controlled substance to a minor. Polanski took a plea deal of a lesser charge of engaging in unlawful sexual intercourse but before the sentencing he fled to France and has been living as a fugitive ever since. Now living in Poland, its Prime Minister Zbigniew Ziobro has recently called upon its Supreme Court to extradite Polanski to the US. Here's the kicker, over 100 Hollywood directors have stepped up in the past, even signing a petition, to show their support for Polanski while well aware of his plea deal. One of those supporters, another writer, actor and Academy Award-winning director Woody Allen who actually married his step daughter who was thirty-five years younger than him, has also been accused of molesting a 7 year old child. I mention this to give context to a double standard. At this very moment Roman Polanski and Woody Allen are still praised, awarded and looked upon as Hollywood Icons yet people aren't really talking about how pervasive this sickness is in America, including women rights activists and feminists. I did back in January when the Bill Cosby accusations came out. All things being equal, I would love to see a larger discussion about men like Polanski, Allen, other men and women like them, and even boycotts of their films -especially from those who are leading these critiques about Nate Parker's accusations. 

My Grandmother, Inez Dorsey Frank

   In regards to the film itself, let me start by saying I appreciated it in a way that some may not be able to relate to. I am a direct descendant of prisoners of war [slaves], literally. My great-great-great grandfather Josiah Henson was born into slavery in Charles County Maryland on June 15th, 1789. A forerunner of the Underground Railroad, Henson was enslaved for 41 years until he escaped to Canada with his wife and four sons. Once settled he was instrumental in helping other blacks organize to find the land and found the Dawn Settlement through negotiating the purchase 400 acres. He was the catalyst behind establishing the British-American Institute for fugitive slaves and military strategist who organized a Black Militia who fought in the Rebellion of 1837. In addition, he continued to travel back into America many times helping hundreds gain their freedom. I was blessed to learn this as a child and it gave me a sense of pride in a legacy that many of my people didn't have the benefit of knowing. Josiah had twelve children altogether and from his family was born a great grand-nephew named Matthew Henson; a famous explorer who traveled to the North Pole that many learn about during Black History Month every year. Matthew Henson fell in love with a beautiful Inuit woman named Akatingwah and they had a son, his only child, named Anaukaq.  

     I mention some of my ancestry because throughout the film I couldn't help but recognize the striking parallels between the life of Josiah Henson and Nat Turner. In fact, I would not be surprised if Nate Parker used elements of my great-great-great grandfather's life for Nat Turner's narrative. Why wouldn't he? Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of one of the greatest American novels Uncle Tom's Cabin, didHere are just some of those parallels:
  • Both Josiah and Nathaniel are biblical names.
  • Both were born into slavery and prophesied by elders to be great leaders among their people when they were children. This prophesy was true in both cases.
  • Both learned scripture as children. 
  • Both of their fathers, at three or four years old, were separated from their family after assaulting a white man.
  • Both were raised by their mothers.
  • Both became Reverends in their late teens.
  • Both were given permission to travel to various plantations to preach.
  • Both were married in their early twenties.
  • Both organized black militias to fight against oppression.
   One of the most important parallels is both of these freedom fighters have been buried in American History with their names used to shield its dirt. As mentioned, elements of Josiah Henson's life were used for the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, yet he was no Uncle Tom. In the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel The Confessions of Nat Turner that Time Magazine included in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005, Nat Turner is characterized as a sex crazed bisexual simpleton. That is why it's important to share and control our narrative. If not, our future generations will think Josiah Henson was like Uncle Ruckus and Nat Turner was Ray Lewis. That is a tragedy. It's also tragic if this happened to our life when we're no longer here. 

   Because The Birth of a Nation is still very new I encourage you to see and judge it for yourselves. Regardless if you choose to see it or not, I also encourage you to do further research on slave revolts in North America. One of the best resource books I've read on the subject is Black Rebellion: Eyewitness Accounts of Major Slave Revolts by author Dr. Sujan Dass.

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