Hampton U. forum on “Birth of a Nation” movie

By Roger Wynn

A panel discussion on the 2016 film "The Birth of a Nation" is scheduled for 6 p.m. Thursday at the William R. and Norma B. Harvey Library of Hampton University. The panelists will discuss if the film successfully portrayed the insurrection of Nat Turner.

Last October, the movie "The Birth of a Nation," co-written, co-produced and directed by Nate Parker, was a period drama film based on the insurrection of Nat Turner that took place in Southampton County, Virginia. The movie attracted a massive amount of attention due to not only accolades at the Sundance Film Festival and NAACP Image Awards, but because of accusations of rape that were made against Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin.

In 1999, Parker, who was a wrestler and student at Penn State University, and Celestin, who was Parker's roommate at the time, were charged with raping an 18-year-old female in their apartment after a night of drinking. Parker was found not guilty because he and the victim had consensual sex prior to the incident. However, Celestin was convicted and sentenced to six months in prison.

The incident brought a negative outlook on both Parker and the film.

In 2012, the woman who accused Parker and Celestin of sexual-assault committed suicide. The victim's death certificate noted that she had suffered from major depressive disorder with psychotic features, including PTSD, due to physical and sexual abuse and poly-substance abuse. These incidents relating to Parker complicated the marketing plan for the film.

"A movie that was supposed to be about our history gets shot down because of the scandal of the director/actor," said Simone Williams, 20, a strategic communications major from North Carolina. Simone believed without the rape controversy, the movie could have been successful at properly illustrating that 19th-century event.

Some people believe that Parker's film was purely overshadowed by his past allegations and took away from its significance. "I think people wanted a reason to not take it seriously and bringing up that guy's old rape charges kind of took away from the real message of the movie," said Kennerly Benraty, 21, a pre-law major from Portsmouth, Virginia. Kennerly believes "The Birth of a Nation" could have had an impact on culture in general considering the historical significance the film brought the world: "I think it made a lot of people go back and watch the original 'Birth of a Nation,' which turned a lot of heads."

Some people who watched the Nat Turner biopic may not even be aware of who Nate Parker was or his past conflicts, but do feel as if the movie could have done a better job at portraying this specific time in history.

"I feel like '12 Years of Slave' did a better job at reflecting slavery in a vivid way," said Alexis Clark, 22, a senior kinesiology major from Portsmouth, Virginia.

Clark also said that the insurrection of Nat Turner was such an important period in time for African-American culture because it was the start of a new beginning. However, she also believes that people were not fond of the movie because it was based on history: "America lives in fantasy. History is fact-based. If the core of that movie was about a slave revolt started by a mutant or vampire, it would have made 10 times the money and attention."

More questions and discussions about the success of the film will be open to the Hampton University campus at 6 p.m. Thursday during the panel "Black History in the Commonwealth: The History of Nat Turner, Did Hollywood Get It Right?" The panelists will include Bruce Turner, Bill Bryant, Booker T. Mattison and Robert Watson.

The writer is a student in the Scripps Howard School of Journalism and Communications.

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