How Should We Tell Black History?

Two new films, The Birth of a Nation and 13th, confront the burden of how best to reposition important black narratives. One fails completely.

How Should We Tell Black History?   Fox Searchlight

“Every man,” Richard Wright wrote in his novel, The Outsider, “interprets the world in the light of his habits and desires.” Set in the 1950s, the book is told through the eyes of Cross Damon, a self-analyzing black intellectual who, on a pursuit for truth, uncovers a world defined by heightened racial terror.

By the time The Outsider reached bookshelves in 1953, Wright had already become something of a literary star and self-appointed historian: Native Son (1940), his most famous novel, and Black Boy (1945), his memoir of growing up rough in Mississippi, were books that richly considered the lives of blacks constrained by the strangle of American poverty. Wright’s stories, fictionalized and real, never spared readers the violence that society cast upon its most marginalized citizens (and, in turn, the violence blacks wished to cast back onto their white aggressors). His commitment to truth-telling often arose at the expense of revealing just how ugly life was for individuals who lived at the perimeter, in communities like Chicago, Harlem, Jackson, and Memphis.

Histories are never definitive artifacts — they exist in the multiple. For every Richard Wright story of a down-on-their-luck, powerless black family, there is a Paule Marshall or an Ann Petry or a James Baldwin, writers who worked in the same era, and chronicled the interior of black survival. For every widely accepted account of a single event, there are conflicting versions, where religious, political, economic, social, or cultural histories run parallel to one another. Necessarily, one should always be cautious of the lens through which history is told. Man, like Wright reminds us, makes sense of the world “in the light of his habits and desires.”

In The Birth of a Nation, the Sundance-lauded film that broke a festival record in January — it was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the largest ever deal — actor-director Nate Parker’s habits and desires produce an incomplete retelling of the life of Nat Turner, the young slave-preacher who led a days-long rebellion throughout Southampton County in August of 1831.

Historians have termed the uprising one of the deadliest slave mutinies in America. Though estimates vary, at least 10 men, 14 women, and 31 infants and children, all of whom were white, are said to have died in under 48 hours. The revolt, or at least what is known of it, was detailed in The Confessions of Nat Turner: The Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Virginia, a book published in the same year by Thomas R. Gray, a lawyer who met with the insurgent preacher during his subsequent imprisonment in Jerusalem, where he was later lynched for his crimes.

Histories are never definitive artifacts — they exist in the multiple.

By Turner’s own telling, he was called upon by God to kill slave owners who held his people in a cycle of bondage. In the film, however, Parker’s gaze is less concerned with facts. The movie’s narrative is largely comprised of the particulars of Turner’s personal life — his day-to-day routine on the Turner plantation, how he met his wife, her subsequent rape by white lawmen, and the birth of his child. Many of those details never made their way into Gray’s book, and are impossible to verify. For historians, it’s unclear if Turner was ever actually married, had a child, or to what extent he really preached to slaves throughout the South.

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Parker’s distortion of the facts raises an important set of questions in regard to black history: What stories should we tell? And how should we tell them?

While Parker does a fine job of intoning Turner’s fire-and-brimstone persona, his vision of Turner’s story adheres to a superficial and harmful narrative often maintained throughout Hollywood, one that regurgitates homogenous black stories time and again: safe and formulaic ones. (Slave narratives thrive in peculiar fascination among studio executives and movie-going audiences: Glory, Amistad, Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave, and D.W. Griffith’s original Birth of a Nation found massive success, if not some controversy, upon their initial release.) Exiting the theater, I wondered: What is the point of a historical film if it does not, in some measure, deepen our understanding of the event or person in question?

The disappoint extends in all directions because alongside the film exists a chorus of compounding histories: the scarcity of black directors, the scarcity of humane black stories on theater screens, the scarcity of black ownership in Hollywood, the scarcity of second chances for black creators. There’s Parker’s own personal history, too: In 1999, he and Jean Celestin, the Birth of a Nation co-writer, were charged with the rape of a young woman during their time as students at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was found not guilty of rape but guilty of sexual assault. The conviction was later overturned, and the alleged victim took her own life in 2012.

Before the accusations were made public and before the flood of largely negative reviews, I wanted this film to succeed. Even as I watched in a nearly empty theater in Manhattan this month — the lone black viewer among three older white couples — I hoped critics, in part, had missed something. Maybe there was still a glint of hope, not for Parker, but for Nat Turner’s story. It is important that we continue to tell it, but only if we do so accurately and with care, acknowledging that Turner was not just a slave who wanted better for his people, but a religious extremist who killed white children in the name of God. Now, taking stock of it all, each history running up against the other, I don’t think it matters if Birth of a Nation is a good or wholly awful film. It matters that it is a correct one. It is not.

How we tell history matters. How we tell black history matters even more. A project that bears the full weight of that truth is Ava DuVernay’s 13th, a documentary which traces the genealogy of racial inequity in the United States and charts how the Thirteenth Amendment led to our current state of mass incarceration (the U.S. accounts for 25 percent of the global prison population). In DuVernay’s hands, the criminalization of black communities is made all the more clear in its brutality: here is another one of our great American sins, she says, signed into the fabric of our great country, the Constitution. Both films challenge the moral erosion of America’s founding principle: how do we best build a democracy? With blood and bodies. Or more specifically, 13th answers, with black blood and black bodies.

In the closing minutes of 13th — as interviewees grapple with the swelling threat of police violence in communities under constant surveillance — Cory Greene, the co-founder of the youth organization H.O.L.L.A. lends context to the unending stream of videotaped black killings that make their way to the public. “For many of us whose family lived through this, who are extensions of this kind of oppression, we don’t need to see the pictures to understand what’s going on,” he says. “It’s really to speak to the masses who have been ignoring this for the majority of their life. But I also think there is trouble in showing black bodies just as dead bodies, too. Too much of anything becomes unhealthy, unuseful.”

How Should We Tell Black History?