All Films Matter: The Birth of a Nation and the Vilification of Black Feminism

Black feminism didn’t cause The Birth of a Nation to fail, but some black men definitely caused their hatred of black feminism to mirror the “All Lives Matter” brigade. 

Scene from The Birth of a Nation
Scene from The Birth of a Nation Fox Searchlight

Before you read this, there are two things you should know:

  1. I paid to see The Birth of a Nation. I reviewed it. I liked it. I wish more people had seen it.
  2. I believe Nate Parker is a despicable human being.

I don’t believe those two facts negate each other. Intelligent people understand that two things can be true at the same time. A sexual abuser can make a beautiful movie, just as a serial rapist could be one of the funniest men who ever lived, just as a pedophile could write “I Believe I Can Fly” or “Ignition (Remix).”

While it is useless to relitigate a decade-old rape case or argue the varying opinions of the movie’s quality, there is a larger issue that the controversy surrounding the movie has unearthed.

There is a contingent of people (largely black men) who believe that the film is too important to be ignored or boycotted. Many of them have gone so far as to lay the blame for the film’s box-office failure squarely at the feet of black feminism. For these men, the women who have loudly refused to support Parker’s opus are traitors. The subtext of their argument, however, extends far beyond the narrative of a Nat Turner biopic. It goes to the heart of many black men’s attitude toward black feminism itself.

For them, progressive-thinking women of color have become too vocal, and too militant. These black feministas’ uncompromising stance toward The Birth of a Nation, their unwillingness to support a project created by a rapist and an accused rapist (let us not forget that Parker’s writing partner, Jean McGianni Celestin, was actually convicted by a jury of his peers of rape), is problematic for these men. The men who are upset with the women boycotting BOAN do not care about the merits of the argument at its root. They don’t care about feminism or equality or even the movie. They just want these women to shut the f–k up.

There should be a nuanced discussion about this movie. Black feminists and the people shouting them down should be able to come to a mutual understanding. I, however, am unable to facilitate this compromise because I’ve seen these men’s arguments before. I see it on Fox News every day. I read about it at Donald Trump rallies on every evening’s news. I get angrily worded, poorly written emails about it from alt-right trolls.

It is the same premise as “All Lives Matter.” Black men who accuse feminists of being anti-male man-haters for affirming their rights as women are the mirror images of the conservative whites who accuse black people of being anti-cop racists for simply affirming that their existence matters. The subjective merits of the movie don’t matter. It’s like being upset with civil rights activists sitting in at lunch counters because you like that particular restaurant’s sandwiches.

Perhaps the most frequent rebuttal to black women’s refusal to accept Parker’s arrogant belligerence is the refrain that “he was found not guilty.” I want to show those people pictures of George Zimmerman eating juicy steaks in fancy restaurants. I want them to see Darren Wilson’s vacation videos. I want them to see the six-figure salary of the policeman who choked the life out of Eric Garner. I want to remind those people that “not guilty” does not mean “innocent.”

I do not pretend to understand the emotion and fear that women have to deal with regarding rape and sexual abuse. I don’t try to equate it with any of my personal struggles or equivocate about it as if I know what it’s like, because I hate when neoliberal white allies analogize racism and prejudice with that one time they were discriminated against.

Again, I admit that I saw the movie and I thought it was a powerful, artistic triumph. When asked why I went to see it, I try to explain that black people should not be burdened with waiting for perfectly unflawed artists to tell our stories, but that was a lie. I saw it because I wanted to see it. I saw it because I have longed to see Turner’s story told on the big screen. More importantly, I saw it because I am a man. I recognize that I have the privilege of conveniently ignoring sexual abuse and the issues surrounding women.

The elephant in the room is that a few days ago, journalist Roland Martin, an outspoken supporter of The Birth of a Nation, called out The Root’s Senior Editor Yesha Callahan’s reporting as inaccurate when she referred to the movie as “a flop.” In the interest of transparency, I must admit that I have a professional relationship with Callahan. I also have personally witnessed her clapback powers, and trust me, Martin don’t want none. They don’t make ascots thick enough to protect his neck. While Callahan’s article did dance on BOAN’s grave, journalists far smarter and better than I have found no factual fault with the article. The movie failed to meet the distributors’, the media’s and the general public’s box-office expectations. That is how you define “flop.”

Although Martin’s subsequent rants (after he reported Callahan’s clapbacks to her boss) focused on black media’s responsibility, professionalism and the need of black people to support the artistic endeavors of other black people, his argument was too transparent. It was the same pivot as when Fox host Bill O’Reilly condemns Black Lives Matter and then starts a dialogue about black-on-black crime. It was the same as when police release mug shots and arrest histories of dead, unarmed black boys. Martin did not want a collective of black support for black movies. He did not want Callahan to “do better.” He wanted her to shut the f–k up.

Ultimately, to blame black feminism for The Birth of a Nation’s failures is stupid. Black women did not create Nate Parker’s sordid sexual past. Black feminists did not look back on the incident years later and still refuse to acknowledge that having sex with a drunk 19-year-old and then deciding to invite your friend to join in was regretful, not even in hindsight. Black women did not make up two rape stories out of thin air and shoehorn them into a historical account. Black feminists did not hopscotch through media outlets flaunting their belligerent, unrepentant attitude and expecting people of color to support them because … black people.

Ultimately, the reason for the backlash against black feminism is simple: It is for the same reason butt-hurt wyt pee-pull use the term “reverse racism.” It is why they call Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization.” It all boils down to the same sentiment. Whether it is white people standing over dead black bodies on Ferguson, Mo., sidewalks, black men upset because their pet project died in theaters or rotund neckerchief wearers berating a fellow journalist in public, on the time-honored stage of accusation and attacks, victim-blaming is still No. 1 at the box office.