What does Nat Turner have to say to today’s America?


Nate Parker plays Nat Turner in his new film, The Birth of a Nation, about an 1831 slave revolt in Virginia.
  • Nate Parker plays Nat Turner in his new film, The Birth of a Nation, about an 1831 slave revolt in Virginia.
The arts section, no less, of a recent New York Times carried two stories on American racism at its roots. There was an admiring review of a new play, Underground Railroad Game, a kind of comedy whose "smug and familiar humor," wrote critic Ben Brantley, "winds up exploding in our face, like a poisonous prank cigar." Underground does, at least, have one foot in the present: two flirting students—one white, one black—who try to explore America's slave past and fall into an abyss.

But Underground is the exception. The second play, Nat Turner in Jerusalem, is rooted in yesterday. It was described by Brantley as an "earnest, gravely lyrical gloss" on the so-called confessions left behind when Turner was hanged in Virginia in 1831 for his part in leading a slave insurrection in which more than 50 white people were killed. 

More of Turner is on the way. Brantley noted the "deafening buzz" around The Birth of a Nation, a dramatic film about the 1831 uprising starring writer-director Nate Parker as Turner. (It's due out Friday.) "Slavery is hardly a taboo subject these days," Brantley observed. Two years ago, 12 Years a Slave won the Oscar for Best Picture, he noted, and The Underground Railroad, a new novel by Colson Whitehead, is a best-seller. 

Unmentioned by Brantley were the 2012 Quentin Tarantino hit Django Unchained, a slave revenge fantasy, and 2015's Best Picture-nominated Selma, which changed the focus from the slave days to the era of Jim Crow. All of these films look back, and the reason they do is impeccable; we can't look forward unless we know where we've been. 

And so the popular arts weigh in on our national conversation on race. This conversation is going on all around us and it's a messy thing. It can be shrill and it can be silent. Colin Kaepernick spoke up by sitting down, and other athletes followed his example. When three Nebraska players knelt for the national anthem before a game against Northwestern last Saturday, their state's governor, Pete Ricketts, called the gesture "disgraceful and disrespectful." Said Ricketts, "Generations of men and women have died to give them that right to protest." (Which is a reason why they shouldn't?) 

I think Ricketts is obtuse. But then, Ricketts thinks the Nebraska players are, their conduct being irritating and counterproductive. A preliminary goal of any conversation on race has to be getting past the point of thinking the other side doesn't get it because it's composed of idiots.

Accomplishing even that much is so difficult that even as I admire these movies and plays that focus on racism at its historical worst, I question them. By tracing our troubles to their sources in the past, does pop culture dodge the enormously more complicated present? Slavery might be hard to look at, but it's somewhat easier to think about. When plays and movies are set in the south back in the days of masters, whips, and white impunity, the northern audiences I'm in don't seem to feel implicated in the slightest. 

A modern white southerner might not feel implicated either, but another southerner slightly more aware might wonder, Is that who they think we still are? Or even, Why the displacement? Look your own sins in the eye! They're not making movies about the Chicago race riot of 1919 or Marquette Park in 1966. All the President's Men and Spotlight prove the allure of movies that celebrate the inner working of great newspapers trying to do the right thing—but where are the movies in which powerful northern editors decide to make it clear the proposed 1963 march on Washington can only harm the Negro's worthy cause? And where are the movies about other northern gentlemen—educators, clergymen, sportsmen—seeing to it their institutions stay white?

At long last, American culture stares with unblinking eyes at original sin. But we are long past original sin. Movies whose focus is two centuries past are like the eloquent calls we hear to convene the national conversation that already is tumultuously underway. They are gratifying distractions from the country in front of our eyes. 

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