The Birth of a Nation, in theaters Friday, is the latest cultural reimagining of Nat Turner, leader of the infamous 1831 Southampton County, Virginia, slave rebellion. Directed, co-written, and starring Nate Parker (who is currently doing a poor job engaging with resurfaced rape allegations from his past), the film positions Turner as an action hero of sorts, as Nat inspires a small army of men to rise up against their oppressors, culminating in a bloody battle against a white militia.
Amid all of the action—and really, throughout most of the film—black women are positioned on the sidelines. But was this the case in real life? I spoke with Dr. Vanessa Holden, assistant professor of history at Michigan State University and author of a forthcoming book about the role women and the community at large played in Turner’s rebellions, about Birth of a Nation’s depiction and how it fits, creatively and historically, within the canon of films about American slavery.* This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
How common were slave rebellions at that time, and throughout the period of American slavery in general? It seems to me like they didn’t happen nearly as often as white people feared they would.
Whites always feared revolt. They feared it in the earliest days of colonial America, and they had good reason to. Now, thanks to more recent scholarship, we know that enslaved people really resisted slavery from the interior of Africa along their march to the sea while they were held in barracoons on the West African coast; as they were loaded onto ships; once they were loaded onto ships in the middle of the ocean; once they started making stops in the Caribbean—that Africans who were captured and enslaved resisted enslavement constantly. And once they came to the “New World,” they continued to do so …
It’s interesting, because there are more documented large-scale, violent revolts elsewhere in the African diaspora. And the question is often asked: We have a few big names—Gabriel Prosser in 1800 in Richmond, Denmark Vesey in the 1820s in Charleston, South Carolina—and there are slave revolts, or at least acts of arson, that happened in the 1700s in New York, the Stono Rebellion in South Carolina, and one of the less-noted rebellions in 1811 in New Orleans. But why weren’t there as many large-scale slave revolts? And while slave resistance was super common and pervasive—enslaved people found ways in their everyday lives to resist slavery constantly—why not these large-scale slave revolts? Some of this has to do with geography and just the plausibility of a successful marooned community on an island in the Caribbean versus in the United States, where you’re dealing with not exactly the best geography to pull something like that off.
But some of it has to do with the long-standing resistive structures that enslaved people were engaging in anyway. So that violent revolt might not have been the best or most prudent way to really resist slavery, because that was going to precipitate a huge violent crackdown, which is what these revolts almost always did … We know that African American men, women, and children were almost constantly using networks to deprive their owners of their labor or seek out bits and pieces of freedom for themselves.
The book you’re working on specifically focuses on the role that women and the community played in the Southampton revolts. And Birth of a Nation—I looked very hard to see if there were any women involved in that very climactic killing spree, and I didn’t see any. What was the actual involvement of women in these revolts?
So in Southampton—in the case that I know best—it seems sort of an obvious statement to make, but women were everywhere, all the time. Enslaved women actually outnumbered white women in the country, so they really were the women of Southampton County. The movie really portrays—and it’s sort of interesting how little space of the film the actual revolt takes up—a very masculine affair. It’s a group of men who rally other men, and then they end up in a huge, violent confrontation against white men, and that is the way that Parker presents the scope of the rebellion.
To some extent, the way that he portrays that big, climactic battle moment—which did not happen historically; the rebels actually never make it to Jerusalem, [Virginia.] in the historical record—it sort of pulls the audience away from where the majority of the historical rebellion actually happened, which was in these really intimate, domestic settings. Most of the people murdered in the Southampton Rebellion were murdered in their homes. And they were murdered by enslaved people who they at least thought that they knew very well. Some of whom they’d actually grown up alongside.
The militia [that battles Turner and his men] in the movie is portrayed as these sort of outside soldiers, and it is true that some militia from other counties came in, but initially the militia were actually the local white men who were all required to serve in the militia once they were above a certain age. So all of the fighting and all of the violence that happened during the rebellion was happening between people who, first of all, already almost certainly had a violent past together but also people who spent hours and hours a day working together. They lived life in incredibly close proximity. So if you think about the historical rebellion as opposed to what the film portrays, as this sort of big, ending climactic battle scene, and you realize the majority of the rebellion happened in domestic spaces and in farmhouses and in the front yards of farmhouses, then it’s almost impossible to imagine that setting without women present.
Like—it makes sense if there really is this, like, battlefield somewhere, that maybe women aren’t there. But it doesn’t really make sense if you are chasing people through a house out the back, past the kitchen, that you aren’t going to run into women.
Right, exactly. I mean, they do show those scenes, but they always feature the group of men who are standing outside while one person goes in and attacks the family home. The exception is when Nat begins the crusade and murders his master, which we see on the inside of the house. But even then, the only woman who I think is present is a girl who they show is sleeping next to one of the older white men, the masters. Which frames the rebellion around the idea: “We are rescuing black women from the evil, predatory white masters.”
Yeah. And that follows suit with the way Parker sets up the rape of two enslaved women as the very personal catalyst for rebellion. The little girl—I do think that it’s necessary and really provocative to force an audience to imagine the wide range of abuses that were possible under slavery and almost certainly occurred under slavery …
But not only is it impossible to not imagine that women were present, they tell us that they were present. After the rebellion, local officials as quickly as possible tried to shut down vigilante violence in favor of trying enslaved men, boys, and one woman who they suspected of being involved in the rebellion. They reason they did this was twofold: First, they wanted to make sure that they were compensating owners for their lost property. If somebody just died at the hand of vigilantes, the owner probably wouldn’t get compensated for the loss of that human property; if they tried them, then under the state law, they had to value them and then pay them for executing their slave. So that’s reason No. 1.
Reason No. 2 was this display of mastery, that the right sorts of white people were in charge again, in this very civil way, in contrast to the slave rebels. Administering justice. And when they want to know what happened, they ask, actually, a number of enslaved women to tell them what happened. It only makes sense that we should also ask enslaved women what happened during this rebellion. And many of them talk about being in really, really close proximity to murders and really close proximity to rebels and passing information on for them. Two of them even were cooking dinner for slave rebels who they fully expected to return later in the evening … Dancing through these coerced testimonies makes it really clear that they were present and sometimes actively involved.
Was there any proof that they might have been actively involved in an explicitly violent way, whether actually stabbing or shooting someone, and so on?
The closest is the one woman, Lucy, who is actually jailed for her role in the rebellion. And what she does is she reaches out and tries to stop her mistress from getting away from the oncoming rebels, who are trying to make it through the house out to the backyard; she sort of snatches her and tries to hold her still so that she can’t escape. And she manages to wriggle away and escape into the swamps. But Lucy ends up hanging for doing that. And there’s also another story about a woman who actually doesn’t live until the end of the rebellion, who does actually actively threaten her pregnant mistress with a knife. So, yeah, so these are the sorts of things that have like sort of dipped in through and made it through the documents, and it is plausible that there were more women like them.
So often, whether in movies or TV shows about slavery, the roles of women are diminished. Even in something like Django Unchained, where it’s all about Django fighting to get his wife back, she’s just a damsel in distress. I’m curious as to whether in the academic world we’re seeing more agency attributed to women than we are in movie and TV depictions of the time period.
Yeah, I mean you can’t have a superhero movie without a damsel in distress, right? But as far as historians are concerned, you know, women’s history has been a valid and vital field for decades now, and it’s impossible to study American slavery without engaging the lives of enslaved women, if for no other reason than the fact that enslaved women labored alongside men in the cash crop fields in the American South. And this was driven home in 12 Years a Slave. Lupita Nyong’o’s character is the best picker on the entire plantation … This sort of trope of enslaved women as just working in the fancy mansion is not accurate. Historians have known this for a really long time. I think that for historians of slavery the focus on enslaved women has become an incredibly vibrant field.
And do you think that TV and cinematic interpretations of American slavery, whether it’s Birth of a Nation, or Roots, or Django, make your job easier or more difficult as a historian?
I think that I would say that even though the movies and television shows you just named exist, the cultural touchstone that almost every classroom I speak to can almost immediately call to mind isn’t actually more contemporary depictions of slavery, it’s Gone With the Wind. And if you say Tara, people know what Tara is, right? Even contemporary college students … In some ways I like engaging with my students about what is depicted on film, mostly because I think that filmmakers, unlike historians, get to engage the imagination in ways that are really important because there’s plenty more to study, and I will spend my whole life in the archives, but there are gaps and silences that as a historian I can’t write about definitively. I can suggest that something might have happened, or it’s hard to imagine that something didn’t happen. But filmmakers and artists can actually imagine it.
One of the most poignant scenes, I thought, in Birth of a Nation comes at the very end, where Cherry Turner is hanging up wash [on a clothesline], and she hears Nat Turner’s voice, and that’s sort of ambiguous, whether that scene is really of him hiding out—which he did do actually for two months after the rebellion ended—or if she’s just imagining it. And I thought it was really poignant because it really gets at the fact that Southampton, I mean it’s still a place. It continued to be a place after the rebellion. Many, many people survived the rebellion and had to go on living there, including Nat Turner’s wife, who then had to—as far as we can tell—live out the rest of her life in Southampton County, in a county where they mutilated her husband after his death … When film can depict things like that, I find it helpful, in my teaching. But when there are, sort of, glaring inaccuracies, not just you know, “I cut these extra characters for clarity,” or something like that, it can make things harder because the image sticks.
What is the most glaring creative liberty that Parker took in this movie?
For the most part, the movie is [Parker’s] own sort of imagined historical fiction narrative about the rebellion. And the rebellion itself doesn’t actually really take up that much space in the film. I do think that the way that women are portrayed in the film sort of reapplies this idea that enslaved women only worked at domestic tasks,and that women during times of rebellion just sort of hid, like he sort of shuttles his mother away, right, so that she’s not in the line of fire. That women are victims of abuse and that they are protected by male slaves, that they don’t have any agency in their own sort of defense.
Also, enslaved people in Southampton, Virginia, certainly did not have their own personal cabins, so some of the material details about the county—it’s very clearly Georgia or South Carolina, not Virginia. [The movie looks like] a fictitious “every South,” not the very specific antebellum Virginia. In 12 Years a Slave, place, ou know, Louisiana, cane fields, cotton fields, are very painstakingly depicted because it’s so central to really understanding everyday life as an enslaved person. [Birth of a Nation], it doesn’t have that, and some of that may be because it was shot very quickly. Their initial budget was not a blockbuster, Brad Pitt, 12 Years a Slave sort of production budget, but I do think that that matters. I think it matters [because it's] what people carry with them about slavery and the enslaved experience.
Parker has said that this movie is a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country and abroad. Do you think it lives up to its provocative title, Birth of a Nation?
I do think he’s attempting to bring to the screen a very different kind of movie about slavery. A movie that doesn’t have really the triumph and ending in the same way as some others movies about slavery, one that’s really centered on one black male hero acting to free his community. And I think that getting people to think about slave rebellion and slave resistance is really important. But I wonder if the blow that he sort of is hoping for with this film—you know, it’s coming at that moment when a lot of people are creatively exploring America’s slave past, and it’s also coming at a moment of intense racial tensions, right? There is a major party candidate who uttered the words structural racism in a televised debate; this is becoming part of the public vocabulary in a way that is really unprecedented.
I don’t know that the movie itself really leaves the audience with the tools to sort of make the huge broad jump from the 1830s to the present day, because I don’t think that it’s true that other movies that have been produced about slavery haven’t also depicted enslaved people in ways that aren’t important to recognize in the present moment. I think that because it has sort of scrappy beginnings as an indie film and the way that he raised money for it, I think maybe if that’s what he means, then yeah, the fact that it then managed to get this huge distribution deal is sort of a blow to that whole studio system. But I’m not sure that the movie or even the actual historical story is the sort of activist rallying cry he might be alluding to.
*Correction, Oct. 11, 2016: This post originally misstated that Dr. Vanessa Holden is an assistant professor in the African American studies department at Michigan State University. She is an assistant professor of history.