Students, panelist clash over ‘Birth of a Nation’ film

By Kenya Waugh

Hampton University students clashed with a Williamsburg writer Thursday during a panel discussion about the 2016 film remake "The Birth of a Nation." The film followed the psychological and emotional development of enslaved Christian preacher Nat Turner prior to the insurrection he led in 1831.

However, as students gathered to listen to three panelists' critiques about the film's accuracy, one speaker's opinion ignited a flaming verbal joust.

"I disagree with the portrayal of white slave masters in the film. There was too much demonization," said Bill Bryant, speaking to his general view on the film's many historical errors. Bryant's family is based in Southampton County, which sparked his fascination with the Nat Turner rebellion over 50 years ago.

Bryant said the movie was "solidly constructed," but the picture was far from Nat Turner's true story within the context of American history.

Bryant also cited the presence of good plantation owners in the 19th century and how the movie's lack of representation added to its inability to be historically correct.

Scoffs and whispers erupted from the audience of mostly African-American students during his analysis, with some questioning to their peers why Bryant still had the microphone.

Deanna Lucas was among the first to openly disagree.

"I was offended by that comment, because the truth is, slavery was horrible period," said the sophomore journalism major from Philadelphia. "No 'howevers' or 'buts.'"

Lucas also said that no spectrum existed in classifying slave masters and that anyone owning another human being was malevolent by default.

Bruce Turner, Nat Turner's descendant, oral historian and panelist, agreed with Lucas.

Alexandra Ethridge, a freshman psychology major, disapproved of Bryant's comment and asked him to explain his definition of demonization. He criticized other parts of the film for its inauthenticity.

Booker Mattison, an associate professor of English and a filmmaker, chimed in to guide the discussion back on track. He said that Bryant's attention-grabbing comment and the movie's historical depictions are subjective.

"You have to think about who's doing the storytelling in this particular case," said Mattison. "The film's director chose to portray the characters the way he did because that is how he understood them to be.

"One man's rebel is another man's freedom fighter. It's all a matter of perspective."

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

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