By Jill Lepore for THE NEW YORKER
“The American soil is full of the corpses of my ancestors,” James Baldwin said in 1965, on the occasion of the hundredth anniversary of the Thirteenth Amendment, which abolished slavery. “What one begs the American people to do, for all our sakes, is simply to accept our history,” Baldwin said.
A half century later, that acceptance still hasn’t come. “There’s a desperate sanitization of history,” Nate Parker said in a Q. & A. after a screening of his new film, “The Birth of a Nation,” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. Parker, thirty-six, is the film’s writer and director, and he stars as Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. He finished making the film last year, a hundred years after the release of D. W. Griffith’s silent film “The Birth of a Nation,” a tribute to the Ku Klux Klan. Last week, Fox Searchlight acquired distribution rights for Parker’s film for $17.5 million, a Sundance record. At the screening I attended, the audience gave Parker at least four standing ovations; I lost count, and, I figure, the title alone easily deserves about a hundred.
“The Birth of a Nation” won Sundance’s U.S. dramatic film grand-jury prize, and its audience award, too. People are excited about Parker’s film, which has been a long time in the making. Parker worked on it for seven years. But the wait has been a lot longer than that. There has never been a truly great film about an American slave rebellion, or even about American slavery. Still, despite the record-breaking deal and the countless ovations, there will likely be a certain amount of cynicism about this one. Last month, after the Oscar-nomination whiteout, Trevor Noah and Roy Wood, Jr., talked on “The Daily Show” about how the only films about black people that win nominations are those about slavery and racial oppression, although usually only white people involved in those film win prizes. (In 2013, Quentin Tarantino won a best-screenplay Oscar for his disturbed and exploitative rebel-slave film, “Django Unchained,” and Christoph Waltz won a best-supporting- actor award for his portrayal of a bounty hunter.) During their conversation, Noah and Wood reimagined “Straight Outta Compton,” whose only nomination was for its two white screenwriters, as an Oscar contender called “Straight Outta Cotton,” in which, instead of rapping “Fuck the Police,” N.W.A. hums slave spirituals. All you need, Noah and Wood said, is to drizzle some “slavery sauce” on a film and it’ll win. They had a point, but they also missed one.
Parker didn’t write a film about Nat Turner because he wanted to please the Academy. He wrote a film about Turner because he wants Americans to stare, hard, at the corpses of our ancestors and to finally, finally, bury our dead.
Jill Lepore is a staff writer and a professor of history at Harvard. “The Secret History of Wonder Woman” is her latest book.
Top Photo: Nate Parker, WIKI
Might Yale rename a college to honor a beloved student, instead of a 19th century slavery proponent?
By Isaac Stanley-Becker | The Washington Post January 29, 2016
In the debate underway at Yale University over whether a residential community should continue to bear the name of John C. Calhoun, the fraught question is not simply whether to banish the current title but what to put in its place.
The matter has taken on new urgency — at Yale and nationally — after student protest last fall cast a harsh light on the university’s racial climate, epitomized for some by Calhoun College, named in the 1930s for the 1804 graduate of Yale College who provided much of the intellectual foundation for the Confederacy.
The decisions about the name ultimately belong to the Yale Corp., the university’s governing body, which this week held “listening sessions” to gather community input on Calhoun, as well as names for the two new residential colleges scheduled to open in 2017.