Holden on “The Trouble in Nate Parker’s Southampton” | @ProcessHistory

Vanessa Holden, historian of the Southampton Rebellion (also known as Nat Turner’s Rebellion), reviews Birth of a Nation for Process History:

“Black women and children do not factor into the agricultural labor of the grand plantations that dot Parker’s fictional Southampton. Unlike their historical counterparts who labored primarily in Southampton’s fields, they populate only domestic scenes in the movie. The female members of the character Turner’s family do play a supporting role in the character’s life that accurately reflects the historical Turner’s writings. Parker takes great care to craft an intimate life for his character. He spends time portraying Turner’s marriage and the young family that historians know the historical Turner had but about whom we have little information. It is the abuse of Turner’s wife and interruption of their domestic bliss that serves as a final catalyst for Parker’s version of the rebellion. Ultimately it is the character Turner’s singular genius, his personal suffering, and his enduring spiritual call to greatness that make possible the Southampton Rebellion which serves as the movie’s climax.

“The rebellion occupies a fraction of the movie’s run time. Rather than recounting the well-documented historical path that the rebels took through their neighborhood, Parker’s version rushes through a few murder scenes and then hurls Turner and an ever-expanding group of enslaved men into a final confrontation with militia in Jerusalem, Southampton’s county seat. This final battle scene serves a dramatic purpose and gives the fictional rebellion a much more definitive end than the historical rebellion had. Instead of the lengthy trials and ambiguity that historical Southampton residents waded through after the rebellion, the audience gets a hero’s death scene with musical scoring and dramatic cinematography to match.

“It is easy to list the details of the historical Southampton Rebellion that Parker did not accurately portray, and there are many such details. But what deserves more critical attention is Parker’s insistence on creating an extraordinary black male hero. By crafting of a narrative that depicts a hero made in his own image, Parker fails to explore two of the most compelling features of the historical Southampton Rebellion: the ordinariness of slavery’s evil and the vast resistive network of “heroes” needed to pull off a violent slave revolt. Slavery was awful. It was not only awful on some plantations or in some households or at the hands of a few purely evil masters. It was awful in even the most everyday moments in an enslaved man, woman, or child’s life. All of the enslaved people who survived under the slave regime did so because they resisted slavery every day. That is why Cornelia Carney saw Nat Turner in her father and her father in Nat Turner. In the folk tradition where “Ole Nat” survived, Nat Turner was not one slave but every slave.

“What was most threatening to whites in 1831 was not that one rebellious slave lurked in their midst, but that every enslaved person in every community had good reason to foment rebellion. Moreover, most had the access and means to murder their masters before any militia could arrive to reinstate order. To assuage these fears and anxieties, white officials in Southampton County heavy-handedly emphasized Nat Turner’s importance as a leader. They did their best to shift public fear away from the possibility of mass insurrection and towards one “deranged” slave who managed to seduce otherwise compliant dutiful slaves into violent rebellion. They did so to reestablish their place of authority in the county. They did so while also trying and punishing nearly fifty enslaved people because of their involvement in the rebellion. Among those executed or sold away from the county were men, boys, and one woman. We know what white officials and enslaved people knew in 1831: Nat Turner did not and could not have acted alone….”

Read it all: The Trouble in Nate Parker’s Southampton – Process

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