Following the media build up prior to its Oct. 7 opening, “The Birth of a Nation” generated some $7 million in box office revues in its first weekend, short of the projected $10 million anticipated. The movie based on Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt in Virginia received its share of negative publicity because of the 2000 rape trial (and acquittal) of its writer-director Nate Parker. Disappointing finances and controversy not-with-standing, this film remains a potent topic of discussion in the African American community, prompting Leimert Park’s Esowon Books to hold a forum to converse about its impact.
Among those on the dais were Ayuko Babu, director of the Pan African Film Festival, political commentator Jasmyne Cannick, journalist Erin Aubry Kaplan, and prolific author Gary Phillips.
A prominent activist for the last half-century, Babu pointed to the relevance this almost two-
century-old event has on current events in the United States. He specifically cited the recent police shootings in Baton Rouge, La., and Dallas, Texas, along with the earlier exploits of Black Panther Huey Newton. The saga of Nat Turner has its own history, as Babu brought up thanks to the (successful) efforts of activist/author Louise Meriweather to prevent the transcription of White southerner William Styron’s 1967 novel “The Confessions of Nat Turner” (whose critics decried it as a perpetuation of White America’s fear of the sexual deranged ‘Negro’) into a motion picture.
Cannick, noted for her in-depth critiques of police malfeasance, was stuck by the performance of Roger Guenveur Smith as the “House Negro” Isaiah, suggesting that contemporary Angelenos carry on this tradition of appeasement in the new millennium. Acknowledging the reality that there’s “…never gonna be a ‘Nat Turner Day,’” she maintains that circumstances dictate “win or lose, we’ve got to stand up!”
A columnist and writer whose credits include Essence Magazine, the LA Weekly, Los Angeles Times, Salon, and others, Kaplan praised “The Birth of a Nation” as a departure from extreme Hollywood depictions.
“Either they’re amped up or catatonic,” she said in reference to typical media portrayals of African Americans.
Going on, she noted the difficulty (in some circles) of contemporary audiences to fathom the heinous reality of slavery.
“The White people couldn’t have been that bad,” she said echoing the sentiments of a specific segment of the movie-going public.
Echoing Cannick, Kaplan said the movie poses the question of “… are we gonna stand up, or are we gonna lay down?”
A long-time radical activist turned mystery writer with more than a dozen published novels and scores of short stories and comics, Phillips compared one particularly harrowing scene in the film (in which a slave is “weaned off” a hunger strike by having his teeth chiseled out before being force fed) to contemporary practices at the Guantanamo Bay (Cuba) detention camps on detainees in the war on terror.
Recalling his own experiences in getting Hollywood approval for personal projects, he cited James Baldwin’s 1976 memoir “The Devil Finds Work” as an indictment of the difficulties in maintaining artistic integrity in the pursuit of commercial success.
“The thing that gets you in the door is not the thing that goes out the door,” he concluded.
The night’s gathering filled the confines of the independent bookstore, with entertainment insiders producer Preston Holms (“Posse,” “Gridlock’d,” and “The Birth of A Nation”) and John Singleton (“Boyz n the Hood,” “Poetic Justice,” and “Rosewood”) in attendance.
“’Nat’ raises questions about what you’re doin’ with your life,” Babu suggested. Judging by the lively exchange among those in the audience, all are in agreement.