Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave insurrection, has approximately five women in speaking roles: Turner’s wife, Cherry; his mother, Nancy; his grandmother, Bridget; his master’s wife, Elizabeth Turner; and the master’s daughter, Catherine. Behind them is another woman, Esther, who’s at the center of one of the film’s most pivotal scenes. Though she’s played by the biggest name in the cast, Gabrielle Union, she never speaks (a deliberate choice by Union). In Parker’s telling, Esther is just one soul among the thousands of slaves in antebellum Virginia — the only difference is her survival inspires a revolution. But in the way he tells her story, Parker does a disservice to the actual women who lived and died alongside Turner, presenting them as little more than stock victims in need of deliverance.
Much of the conversation around Birth of a Nation has centered on the college rape allegation against Parker, charges he was acquitted of in 2001. But while Parker’s crimes against women must remain, legally at least, in the realm of reasonable doubt, his treatment of the film’s female characters deserves a similar level of scrutiny. For as much time Parker has spent in the spotlight discussing his newly evolved views on sexual assault, his film itself has a troubling habit of using rape to valorize Turner.
Near the end of the film, before the rebellion, Parker’s owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) throws a dinner party. Esther catches the eye of the one the guests, and so later than night, Turner’s butler arrives at her door to bring her to his bed. Nat and Esther’s husband, Hark, are oddly scandalized by the request, as though the routine rape of enslaved women and men was not business as usual on a Virginia plantation. The arrangement spurs a conversation about consent — but only between Nat, Hark, Samuel, and the butler. Esther is absent, her dignity bounced around from man to man until it’s stripped of any attachment to the woman herself.
And yet, while the film treats every other atrocity of slavery with the same visceral transparency — at one point, Nat watches an overseer hammer in the teeth of a hunger-striking slave — it turns away from this one. Esther’s rape takes place offscreen, with neither a scream nor any audible acknowledgement that a woman is being brutalized. Rather than show the sexual assault, Parker’s camera shows us the faces of pitiful men – Nat, Hark, the butler – standing helpless while they wait outside. The audience bears witness from a comfortable-enough distance. No one has to see what happens to Esther through her own eyes.
In its clumsy way, the scene suggests that the shared pain of the three men matters more than Esther’s own, singular pain. When Esther emerges from the master’s house, her husband collapses onto her shoulder just as much as she does his. It’s clear in that moment that, for the foreseeable future, she’s going to have to comfort him before she can comfort herself. His pain and fragility is of greater importance than her own.
The audience doesn’t get to know the story of how Esther heals, because she’s never seen again. Having served her purpose as a catalyst for Turner’s uprising, she vanishes from the film. The same thing happens to Nat’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), whose rape by a group of white men Parker delicately cuts away from. She’s left out of much of the film’s third act, her disfigured face seen only in rare cutaways when Nat sobs at her bedside, begging her to allow him to avenge her.
Historians and Turner’s own testimony agree that the rebellion was spurred on not by anything resembling either of these incidents, but rather an eclipse, which Turner took as a religious call to arms. Parker has attempted to explain his exclusion of rape scenes in the film by arguing that he didn’t want “to exploit the pathology” of sexual assault, but it’s hard not to see a similar exploitation in the film’s refusal to show violence against women through any lens but a man’s.
Even in scenes that have nothing to do with sexual violence, Birth’s hero-worship of Turner prevents it from presenting its female characters as specific three-dimensional people. Nat’s mother Nancy (Aunjanue Ellis) offers nothing but unwavering support, with none of the moral complexity of his white surrogate mother (Penelope Ann Miller), who retains a measure of sympathy for him even after the rebellion. Even Cherry, purportedly the love of Turner’s life, gets short shrift: Shortly after their rushed marriage, Nat learns that Cherry isn’t her real name. When she tries to reveal more about her history and how she got to that auction block, she’s met with a dismissive smile. Whatever Cherry’s real-life story — and the facts have long been disputed — it’s irrelevant to the one Parker has invented for her.
One scene near the end of the film offers the possibility of something more. After Nat receives a vicious whipping, his grandmother (played with admirable fortitude by Esther Scott) tends to his wounds, offering a family story about the transatlantic slave trade. Just when you a think the movie might finally give her some depth, her speech turns out to be yet another celebration of a Turner man — in this case, Nat’s grandfather, who bravely defied the slavers. It’s a fitting example of the film’s worldview. It was apparently Nat Turner’s destiny all along to become a martyr. All the women in his life had to look forward to was helping build his cross.