Monday, October 17, 2016
Nate Parker's "Birth of a Nation" reveals the frustration of being stuck in the middle of impending change
There are things I’ve learned to help me maneuver around the myriad of issues and concerns that keep people rift by division.
Top on that list is the awareness that I am a man. My world view is shaped by the massive privilege afforded me due to my gender. Some would argue my maleness is offset by my blackness. In other words, the fact that I face discrimination based on my race offers me points to get me out of the privilege camp.
Sorry, not true. There are certain things that I can’t fully understand. It’s best to shut up, suck it up and listen. Case dismissed.
This has been my position related to Nate Parker, the man behind “Birth of a Nation”. Arguably the best movie of 2016, the buzz following the Sundance Film Festival was enough to land Parker a record breaking distribution deal. Based on the insurrection led by Nat Turner, the movie tells a story not taught in high school American history. Far too many Americans haven’t heard about Turner, Denmark Vasey and Gabriel Posser.
As a black liberation theologian, I was thrilled when I heard about the movie. I revisited many of the books I’ve read over the years about the radical edge of black religion. My working thesis is black Christianity is the appropriation of white evangelical Christianity. I argue that the normalization of white Christianity in black churches was constructed during the post-reconstruction years. In an effort to affirm and justify the role of blacks in white public space, the nuances of white Christianity became more influential at the end of reconstruction.
The faith of Nat Turner, and other insurrectionist, was influential in crafting a counter religious claim that inspired revolution. Gayrud Wilmore, author of “Black Religion, Black Radicalism”, distinguishes black Christianity inspired by white evangelical thought from black religion which is rooted in the traditions of African religion and a desire for liberation.
When I heard of Parker’s movie, I was excited due to how it can be used to shift conversations related to how we talk about black faith in contemporary context. I’m mindful of the disconnection between the scholarships involving black religion versus how it is appropriated today in most black churches. The break between the historical journey of black religion and the practice of Christianity is noted in Raphael Warnock’s book “The Divided Mind of the Black Church.”
Little has been done to bridge the gap between history and practice. Packed on top of this divide is the population of theologically untrained clergy. Far too many churches are led by Biblical literalists who lack the theological tools, understanding of history and ability to communicate a message of faith not rooted in Eurocentric analysis.
“Birth of a Nation” has the potential of pressing these conversations. As a filmmaker determined to tell the story regarding black, radicalized religion, I’m saddened by what happened to “Birth of a Nation”. I’m hurt that people aren’t watching the movie. I’m disgusted that an opportunity to spread the message has been lost due to accusations from Parker’s past.
As Dante James (“Eye on the Prize”, “Slavery and the Making of America” and “This Far by Faith”) and I press to obtain funding for “God of the Oppressed”, this tragedy stirs inward hostility regarding the difficulties of telling black folk’s truth from a place not compromised by who funds the project.
Keep in mind that “Birth of a Nation” is not history. It’s a heavily fictionalized account of Turner’s revolution. It’s not a perfect movie. Black women didn’t get enough credit for their role in the revolt. There are parts left out, and there are things that should have made the final cut. This is part of the burden of filmmaking.
But, it’s an important message. It’s one that resonates with my work. I’m concerned that “God of the Oppressed” will be hindered by the poor box office numbers. I’m troubled that investors will respond with “I told you so.” You know, after everything said about the Academy Awards selection process, why should white people support black films.
I’m also disgusted, as a filmmaker, that the black community lacks significant funding streams to advance projects like “God of the Oppressed”.
But, again I say but, that’s not the point. The point is I’m not a woman. The point is I can’t feel what women feel. The point is I have no right to challenge women to support a work that stirs emotions that I will never fully understand.
I can talk about the challenges of filmmaking. I can discuss the need to educate people on the history of black faith. I can relate my personal anxiety related to the white washing of the black church. I can do all of that with a level of authority and integrity - but I’m not a woman.
So, here I am betwixt and between conflicting agendas. I listen to women talk about Parker’s lack of sensitivity involving the woman who accused him of rape. I understand their need for an apology to reflect sensitivity after she committed suicide. I’m listening, and God knows I want to understand.
But, once again I say but, I’m a filmmaker and theologian interested in telling that story. I’m caught in the middle, knowing the significance of each, while not dismissing the claims women make. Yes, I’m utterly confused due to my desire to listen. I’m baffled because it’s a story that must be told.
It has to be told.
But - there we go again.
So, I’m stuck in the middle of the need for change.