WashU Expert: Re-evaluating ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Despite controversy, film advances 'critical engagement in ... traumas of slavery'

Six African-American actors have been nominated for the 2017 Academy Awards — an Oscar record. Absent from the Feb. 26 ceremony will be Nate Parker, the writer, producer, director and star of early favorite “The Birth of a Nation.”

Last fall, the film’s Oscar ambitions and box-office success were derailed by controversy centering on Parker’s 1999 rape trial, in which he was found not guilty.

Sowande’ M. Mustakeem. (Photo: Kevin Lowder/Washington University)

Despite the controversy, “the film offers many advances in representations of slavery,” wrote  Sowande’ M. Mustakeem, assistant professor of history and of African and African-American studies in Arts & Sciences at Washington University in St. Louis.

“It is indeed worthy of teaching,”  Mustakeem continued in her recent essay “The Ghosts That Linger: Nat, Nate and the Costs of Slavery’s Memory.”  “In fact, I currently am using it in my undergraduate course, ‘Slavery and Memory in American Popular Culture.’

“Placing Parker’s film in conversation with ‘Django Unchained,’ ‘12 Years a Slave’ and ‘Sankofa’ reveals the variations in telling slavery’s memory,” added Mustakeem, author of “Slavery at Sea: Terror, Sex, and Sickness in the Middle Passage” (2016).

“Even more, atypical of the genre, ‘Birth of a Nation’ provides an opportunity to talk about the depiction of disabled slave bodies and lynched black females and children, as well as moving displays of deep compassion by those confined within the cycle of slavery’s horrors.

“I believe that the controversy should not detract from the pressing need for critical engagement in public conversations with the traumas of slavery.”

To read the full essay, visit cenhum.artsci.wustl.edu.

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