I don’t watch footage of violent encounters on Facebook, but I happened to catch the footage of the murder of Philando Castile not long after it had been posted. I thought it had to be a trailer for a movie or something similar. There was no way a death would play out in front of me straight from my laptop, the place I go for memes and pet videos. The truth was devastating.
Many of my friends have now begun to unfollow and even block friends who post violence into their timelines. I do the same, and I do so in the name of self-care. At some point we have to replenish. We have to take care of ourselves in order to take care of others. There is so much our brains can take. Journalist Lerone Bennett Jr. is credited for saying: Image sees/Image feels/Image acts. We need to make sure we’re conscious of the images we see, for they affect how we feel and act. Are they necessary? Are they helpful? Will they do more harm than good?
This is why The Birth Of A Nation bothers me. I could not believe how gory and violent this movie is.
Now, I know the next argument: This is slavery! We have to portray it all. You obviously don’t know enough about slavery!
Let me explain.
In the 1970s, my parents were intent on making sure my two siblings and I understood what it meant to be black in America. At four years old, I watched in confusion as the adults in my entire neighborhood rushed home to watch the original Roots miniseries. I was allowed to watch all eight episodes and while I couldn’t quite understand what I was seeing, I did see the scene when Lavar Burton’s character, Kunta Kinte, had his foot cut off for trying to escape. That image was in my dreams for years. I understood the magnitude of slavery from a very young age.
By the time I was ten, I’d read Before The Mayflower, the definitive book on African-American history from 1619 to the present, written by the aforementioned journalist Lerone Bennett, Jr. And in 1987, my dad sat me and my sister down each week for six weeks to watch Eyes on The Prize, the six-hour landmark PBS documentary about Civil Rights. The story of Emmett Till was told in the film. She and I are both still haunted by the image of Till’s open casket.
Move to the present day: I have a BA in Africana Studies and have taught Black Studies to high school students off and on since 1996 using many of the above sources, along with The Confessions of Nat Turner, the book on which The Birth Of A Nation was based. I’m no expert, but I’ve seen a lot of portrayals of slavery. This film did not have to be shot like a horror movie. It actually affects, and drags down, the entire film.
There’s a rhythm in The Birth of a Nation. First: foreboding music and sweeping scenery. And then GORE. Next: more foreboding music and sweeping scenery. And then GORE. All of that for 90 minutes, as it follows Turner’s awakening from a preacher to the leader of a slave rebellion. (The first hour of the movie chronicles his love affair with Cherry, an enslaved woman who becomes his wife.) Cinematically and thematically, it’s lazy and depends too heavily on intense violence to drive the point home. We all know that slavery came with unspeakable horrors. But a cut-away can be just as visceral as a minute-long force-feeding scene.
The much-discussed rape scene with actress Gabrielle Union feels similarly extraneous. We are introduced to her only briefly and with no true context or nuance, and the attack on her registers as tacked-on and forced. Add in the fact that it’s completely historically inaccurate and the scene’s place in the film is even more curious. When piling on the gore, is there a need to make sure there are a certain number of fictional violent rapes? The entire film, ham-fisted and over-the-top, felt like I was being forced to watch a murder on Facebook—no matter how diligently I blocked people who posted in on my timeline.
It’s very likely that this is just not a movie for me. I’ve been steeped in real-life images and texts about the institution of slavery for 40 years. I may very well be jaded and overly sensitive to its representation. I’d rather that people watch Eyes On The Prize and read The Confessions of Nat Turner. But I know that’s not how it works—we are visual creatures and we want plots and heroes and villains. Narrative films reach people in a way that (most) books and documentaries never could.
I’m sure those close to the film would say that the images are meant to keep the institution of slavery sharp in our minds. So we can #NeverForget and #StayWoke. Perhaps Birth of a Nation is supposed to spark discussion and bring about understanding. But I doubt very seriously this film will bring people together to discuss the horrors of slavery and how it impacts African-Americans today. It’s a water-cooler movie. You huddle with folks to discuss the most gruesome scenes—and then move on to the latest episode of this week’s buzz-worthy show.
I no longer feel any responsibility as a black woman to turn out for a particular film, no matter the topic or director. (Going to see Malcolm X on opening night back in 1992 was non-negotiable). There’s been some chatter about this being a must-see for black folks to support writer/director Nate Parker, whose past sexual assault charges have overshadowed his film’s publicity. But this is not a must-see, no matter what your color is. Unless you wait with baited breath for every new slave movie, you can pass on this one.
Here’s what I know for sure after watching The Birth Of A Nation. Like Kara Brown, I’m done. I will never watch another slave film. Teach me something else. Raise a budget for another narrative. Black folks (and this country as a whole) have so many untold stories. I’m ready to watch them.
Aliya S. King, a native of East Orange, N.J., is the author of two novels and three nonfiction books, including the New York Times bestseller Keep the Faith, written with recording artist Faith Evans. She lives with her husband and two daughters in New Jersey. Find her on Twitter and at aliyasking.com.