A hundred years after The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, actor Nate Parker is at work on a film using the same name.
The original, made during the silent picture era, was directed by D. W. Griffith, and adapted from Thomas Dixon’s novel and play, The Clansman. The story centers around two white families—one Northern, the other Southern—who fought on opposite sides during the Civil War, but ultimately unite in their efforts to trap the newly freed Negro at the bottom of society with the aid of the Ku Klux Klan.
Parker’s film, as you might imagine, will vastly depart from that narrative. It’s set to explore the life of Nat Turner, visionary preacher turned badass, who led a bloody slave rebellion in which 60 whites were killed before Turner was captured and hanged.
Parker wrote the project and will direct it, inspired to retell Turner’s story because “when black history came around, I saw the pictures of the [slave] ships and all the people, and it brought intense shame and embarrassment.” Those feelings stemmed from his lack of knowledge about blacks’ attempts to stop the “dirty system” of slavery.
Parker’s take on Birth of a Nation “isn’t a story about a black guy that killed white people,” he has said, it’s “about an American hero that fought for ideals that America was supposed to be built on: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, one nation under God.”
Recently I watched Griffith’s film (the whole three-hour-plus epic can be seen here) as research for my novel about a little remembered battle between America’s first black Oscar winner, and the man who headed up the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People for 25 years. Efforts to protest Birth played a significant role in expanding the then-budding the NAACP, which was founded in 1909.
Here are my notes on the original:
–Many of the key black roles are played by whites in blackface, with make up that gets dodgy at the neckline.
–The “tragic mulatto” trope is rolled out, including a biracial man who becomes drunk with power, and a “mixed” woman who spits, tears at her clothing, and has a drifting gaze that makes her look deranged.
–Love is lavished upon a newly created Confederate flag, and racist quotes from Woodrow Wilson (above), then-President of the United states, appear on title cards throughout. (Wilson and Griffith were roomies at Johns Hopkins University.)
(The 28th Commander-in-Chief allowed Birth of a Nation to be shown at the White House, and also authorized cabinet members to reverse racial integration in the federal civil service. Under his administration, federal restrooms and cafeterias became re-segregated, and partitions were installed to separate black federal workers from white ones. As you may have heard of late, some are calling for Wilson’s name to be removed from public places.)
–The original movie asserted that freed blacks should not be treated equally or given the vote because they were irresponsible and dangerous.
–Blacks elected to Congress during the brief Reconstruction Era are portrayed as whiskey-drinking, fried-chicken eating uncouths. When black men aren’t carousing, they’re trying to seduce white women. One brute is so obsessed that he chases a white damsel to her death, which the KKK quickly avenges.
—At the end of the film, blacks try to vote on election day and the KKK, hooded and towering above on horseback, block their path.
While Griffith’s Birth of a Nation gave America a blueprint for how to disenfranchise, marginalize and terrorize black people, Parker’s said his intention was to show a younger generation of black kids that their roots are not at the bottom of a slave ship. “We stand on soil that has reminiscences of our ancestors. We’re not alone.”