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Birth of a Nation


Birth of a Nation

There is a moment in the movie when another black man tries to caution Nat Turner away from killing. He argues that their killing whites will mean that the many of the slaves who did not participate will be killed in retaliation. His act, will mean all of their deaths. The movie communicates however that this particular man -- the one doing the cautioning, a notably feminine, fretful figure -- has become askew to the real desires of the black community. That all of them are quite ready to die to have one of them, even if only for a small moment in time, enjoy revenge on a cruel, exploitative culture. Nat Turner is told that his wife and his daughter will be killed. But he hears from his wife and his mother and his grandmother, only that they could not be more proud of him. They may hang us afterwards, but son, bury that hatchet deep into them today. We're afar but we'll know when the blade has bit, and we'll be joyous. 

Standing up to bullies feels great. And if I accept that what I am witnessing actually happened as told, I get in this instance why the black community stood behind him and ignored those advocating keeping being Jesus-loving rather than initiating being God-wrathful, even if it meant that whole hordes of human beings who knew nothing of Nat would be hanged for his actions. He told them there was fighting power in all of them. All the obsequious behaviour will continue if it must, but it can be discarded as actually intrinsically alien to them once the white slaver's empire shows greater cracks than it proved to in this instance. Staged one hundred years later, it could have done the trick... and even now, an impossibly powerful oppressive culture quaked, and those who will matter in subsequent generations were inspired.

My problem though is that this way of narrativizing is shared by every group that feels (and has been) victimized, and the extent of these groups is much larger than obvious groups like an exploited black population or, say, the contemporary American populace exploited by Wall Street. It very much includes the Klu Klux Klan and fascists everywhere. Dig into the childhood of any fascist and you will find one filled with abuse, as the current book Hillbilly Elegy is trying to remind people. Look at any horrid action visited upon a powerless person -- like the one in the film, where a slaver knocks out the teeth of a slave so he can force food down his mouth -- and you'll be witnessing a version of what actually happened to the person inflicting the torture upon him/herself in childhood (in Hillbilly Elegy, the author describes family members being set on fire as part of the everyday ho-hum). So while watching the film and witnessing it argue that we become men only when we've heaved our oppressors' cut-off heads before us, I am hesitant to only applaud. What if the film had followed its ending with a quick clip from Griffith's Birth of a Nation, where the whites knew glory when they'd strung up "oppressing" black men, thereby asking us how much of our cheering actually owes to fidelity to the black people, and how much to just craving a story of men becoming men through bloody revenge, achieved in a politically correct, non-guilt-arousing form?

Maybe the inverse of demonstrating empathic reach, we demonstrate in our enthusiasm of the film an endorphin-fueled mindset, exactly opposite one that invites in the lived realities of others? Putin is starting to make films like this one, where an oppressed Russian people finally resists an oppressive power (in the case I've heard about recently, the Hitler regime), and you don't feel so much that what's going on is applauding the efforts of brave victimized people who finally put a bullet to the oppressor's head, as gearing up a current Russian Putin-admiring populace for revenge on slights projected onto our current landscape. His historical narratives are going to get transplanted onto today's reality, and it's best not to meet them just as revved up. 

Be kind to the one who braves standing up and saying, hey, maybe there's another way, like Thorin's Balin (You don't have to do this. You have a choice. You've done honourably by our people...) and Kirk's Spock (There is no Starfleet regulation that condemns a man to die without a trial). There may come a day, soon, where we'll need these type of people intact as, not unmanly cowards or self-interested traitors, but those really worth listening to. 


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