The conversation surrounding The Birth of a Nation has completely revolved around its writer, director, producer, and star Nate Parker, specifically the rape allegations against him from 1999. But not much time (or money, it turns out) has been given to the movie itself, and even less to The Birth of a Nation’s female characters.
There is a short scene at the end of the film, which centers on Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831, that comes after the uprising and flashes to its aftermath on the Turner plantation; Nat’s mom (Aunjanue Ellis), his wife (Aja Naomi King), and all the other female slaves are still there under the watch of owner Mrs. Turner (Penelope Ann Miller). They’re left with the burden of having to rebuild their lives as survivors of the rebellion.
“There is a particular pain that black women feel that I don’t think black men understand and it’s a pain that comes from feeling like we do a lot of labor that we are not emotionally compensated for, or publicly compensated for or appreciated for,” Ellis told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview. “I think that that has presented itself throughout our movements as black people in this country.”
In The Birth of a Nation, Ellis plays Nancy Turner, who is not looked upon as a hero in the efforts of abolition. She saves her husband from being caught after he’s involved in the murder of a white man, but because she’s not the one who rebelled against slave owners, the fact that she raised her son and protected her family goes unnoticed.
Perhaps that’s because, as Ellis noted, fighting and violence are most often associated with “heroes,” particularly onscreen. “If you look at any poster of any major motion picture that’s come out in the last several months, you will see a man holding a gun — The Accountant, Jason Bourne, Denzel Washington [in] Magnificent Seven. We have sort of diminished the idea of what heroism is to somebody holding a gun. Heroism is a blood sport. I disagree with that,” she said. “After her husband died, my grandmama was left behind and she did the work of taking care of her family and still being a pillar in her community. That’s heroic, and if we don’t acknowledge that and appreciate that, that divisiveness between black male heroism and black female heroism, that will stand and it will continue to be destructive.”
Ellis said that’s something her Birth of a Nation character faced in the early 19th century and that’s something women, particularly the ones who’ve lost their husbands and sons to police violence, face today. “This is not something that I can say I necessarily have an answer for, but I think that just acknowledging that that pain is there [for women and] is really, really important because it’s very real and it’s potent. And I think that it’s divisive and it will continue to be divisive in a situation like this where you have a black man who is being attacked because of something he has done to another woman,” Ellis said, referring to the rape allegations against Parker and some women boycotting The Birth of a Nation as a result. “You will have black women having to make the choice of, Am I going to be black or am I going to be a woman? What am I doing here? What am I doing? And I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen.”
If Birth of a Nation struggled to spark that conversation, it’s because the allegations that Parker and his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin raped a classmate at Penn State 17 years ago have overtaken it. Parker was tried and was found not guilty, while Celestin was found guilty but appealed — his conviction was eventually overturned. The accuser killed herself in 2012.
Learning about the controversy made Ellis re-evaluate her role in the film. “A couple months ago when we found out about the allegations against him and his acquittal for those, for that… It was difficult, to say the least,” she said. “Here was something that I was so incredibly proud of, and so optimistic about, and then it became marred and stained in some way, and it was hard.” Eventually, she decided, “This is not about him. This is about Nat Turner. This is about this movie that I believe to this day could do so much good. I made a decision, and I said, ‘I am going to do my job of promoting this movie as much as I can because I believe in its power.’ To this day, I believe in its power. Tomorrow, I will believe in its power. The day after that, I will believe in its power.”
Still, Ellis recognizes that The Birth of a Nation’s existence has brought up something devastating for Parker’s accuser’s family. “It’s heartbreaking to me that the presence of this film in the world could cause someone pain,” she said. “And I think that we have to acknowledge that. No matter what we feel about it, no matter what the circumstances were, the presence of this movie and the circumstances surrounding it is causing somebody pain. So that breaks my heart. But it also breaks my heart that there are a contingency, or a community, of folks who are going to stay home because they feel like to see it would be anti-feminist… They feel that they have to stand in solidarity with the woman who was abused, and I understand that wholly.”
Ellis said that women today have to “choose between being a revolutionary and being a woman,” which has been the case throughout history, citing particularly the civil rights movement and the Black Power movement. She added: “What we’re feeling right now is sort of a fatigue of fighting for you, but you’re not fighting with me.”