“I think that Nat Turner, as a hero, what he did in history, is bigger than me. I think it’s bigger than all of us,” Nate Parker told Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” this month.
Mr. Parker was talking about the film he directed, wrote and starred in, “The Birth of a Nation,” and he was responding to a question about whether the public should support the recently released drama in light of reports that he was accused of sexual assault when he was an undergraduate at Penn State in 1999. Mr. Parker noted that he was acquitted and countered that even more important than his own controversy was the weight of our cinematic moment: Nat Turner, the leader of the most canonized slave rebellion in American history has finally made it to the big screen.
But the most celebrated representations of the rebellion leader, including a white abolitionist’s 19th-century essay and Mr. Parker’s film today, have all reimagined Turner’s story as one that hinges on interracial rape. And though the race of both the villain and the victim of the rape have changed over time and have been dependent on the politics and era of the author, there has also been a strange uniformity.
In all these narratives, the rapes of women, black or white, are the prime motivation for Turner’s rebellion, while the women themselves are doubly marginalized. First, they are silenced by the violations against their bodies and then again when their victimization is cast as secondary to Turner’s heroism, their voices sidelined to the plot of Turner’s realization of his own manhood in the horror of slavery.
A literate slave and preacher, Turner led a short-lived revolt in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of more than 50 slaveholders and, afterward, his execution, as well as that of more than 50 slaves. What little we know of the events comes filtered through the publication of “The Confessions of Nat Turner, the Leader of the Late Insurrection in Southampton, Va.” by Thomas R. Gray, a local lawyer.
“For historians, Nat Turner is hard to pin down,” said Scot French, an associate professor of history at the University of Central Florida and author of a book about America’s enduring memory of Turner. He added, “Turner has been made to serve the pressing needs of each generation since,” and artists have filled in the gaps “often imbuing the story with the era’s own anxieties about gender and race.”
In “Nat Turner’s Insurrection,” an 1861 essay by the abolitionist Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Turner’s wife is a slave who belonged to a different master. But the focus is on her husband, who “had no more power to protect her than the man who lies bound upon a plundered vessel’s deck has power to protect his wife on board the pirate-schooner disappearing in the horizon.”
More than a century later, William Styron would take up the theme of sexual violence again in his 1967 novel, “The Confessions of Nat Turner.” But instead of focusing on the vulnerability of Turner’s wife and his impotency in the face of her assault, Styron erased her altogether, turning instead to a relationship between Turner and the teenager Margaret Whitehead. According to Gray, Whitehead is the only person that Turner admitted to killing in 1831. In the novel, Styron invents the story line of Turner’s having several violent sexual fantasies about the blond teenager before ultimately killing her. Explaining his choices in 1992, Styron speculated that perhaps “she had tempted him sexually, goaded him in some unknown way, and out of this situation flowed his rage.”
At first, the novel was lauded for its realistic depiction of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and won the Pulitzer Prize. This success was quickly met by a backlash. In an essay collection, black writers questioned the novel’s historical veracity and asked why Styron had omitted Turner’s black wife. The biggest blow came from the Black Anti-Defamation Association, a group of African-American actors who campaigned to prevent Hollywood studios from adapting Styron’s novel.
The group’s members included the actor Ossie Davis, who cited the lynching of thousands of black men in the South, “the rationale of such activities being that these men constituted a threat to white womanhood.” He asked, “Are we that clear of our horror at the thought of a black male lusting after white flesh?”
The group was eventually able to get the script rewritten and Styron’s title removed. But Fox (which, through its Fox Searchlight unit, is now the distributor of “The Birth of a Nation”) eventually pulled the plug on the movie, in part because some white residents of Southampton County in Virginia did not like Styron’s portrayal of slave masters.
It would take nearly 50 more years, the threat of a new boycott and a rape controversy before audiences would be able to see Nat Turner onscreen.
In many ways, Mr. Parker’s film is the redeeming antithesis of Styron’s novel. Cherry (Aja Naomi King) becomes Turner’s love interest and eventually his wife after he persuades Samuel Turner, his owner, to purchase her on the auction block and save her from the ravaging hands of other slave masters. Their romance is the main frame for the movie, making her sexual assault and brutal beating by three white men all the more devastating.
And though Turner’s political evolution is catalyzed when he travels to other plantations and witnesses slaves’ degradations, his conversion to insurrectionist is fully cemented when Cherry gives him permission to avenge her rape.
Unlike Cherry, a slave named Esther who was also raped has no dialogue in the film. It’s a choice that Gabrielle Union, who plays the role, has said she and Mr. Parker made together. All of her emotions are communicated through facial expressions.
The rape, at the hands of a white man visiting Samuel’s plantation, takes place offscreen — Esther quietly enters and exits the master’s house, her trauma implied by her sunken stare and her collapse into the arms of her husband, Hark. For Esther, we can assume only that this is the final blow to her dignity; for Hark and Turner, we see something else: their transformation into men emboldened enough to fully defy their master.
In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Ms. Union explained that in Esther’s silence “she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular.”
Ms. Union, who wrote of being raped at gunpoint when she was 19, is right to point out that black women who have been sexually assaulted have been silenced throughout America’s past and present. And yet, in a film about coming to terms with the nation’s founding sin of slavery, restoring Turner to his rightful place in the pantheon of American revolutionaries, and providing a mirror to our contemporary racial protest, the representations of rape here feel eerily retrograde. It is a throwback to an era before rape victim-centered stories like Maya Angelou’s “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” (1969) or Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple” (1982), to a time when the sexual assault of black girls and women and their resistance to it was off limits.
“There should be a better understanding of the sexual economy of slavery — one that pushes us beyond simple patriarchal notions of black men’s inability to protect black women,” Crystal Feimster, a Yale history professor, said. Rape, she added, “had everything to do with sexual exploitation of enslaved women’s productive and reproductive labor.”
Their silence also has another function in “The Birth of a Nation”: It mutes their ability to act, rendering their rebellion virtually nonexistent in a film about revolt and freedom. In denying these women their revolutionary gestures, Mr. Parker risks making them objects that he, and only he, can freely move around the screen. By contrast, WGN America’s breakout hit “Underground” offers a more nuanced look at a woman’s resistance: The slave Rosalee (Jurnee Smollett-Bell) kills a white overseer who tried to attack her, and she eventually becomes an abolitionist.
“The Birth of a Nation” is also out of step with the cause it has often been associated with, Black Lives Matter, which has steadfastly resisted the model of a single charismatic male leader and has primarily been led by African-American women.
“Turner’s heroism does not have to come at the expense of black women,” Ms. Feimster said. African-Americans’ struggle for freedom “is about so much more than valorizing black manhood. We will miss so many stories, lose so many narratives, when we only see these one-dimensional characters.”
Salamishah Tillet is an associate professor of English and Africana studies at the University of Pennsylvania. She is a co-founder of the nonprofit A Long Walk Home.