Birth of a Nation, Luke Cage, and the Power of Black Resilience

Johnson: These stories serve a purpose — reminding us we haven’t fully addressed where we are as a country.

Over the last couple of years, several amazing reports were released that felt like throwbacks to an earlier America.

A 2000 Emory University study that found that 74 percent of whites, compared to only 50 percent of blacks, received painkillers for bone fractures. In 2016, Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences looked at the intersection of racial biases and black pain in a survey of more than 300 medically and non-medically trained whites and found that 58 percent of the participants believed that “black skin is thicker than white,” including 40 percent of first- and second-year medical students and 25 percent of residents.

In 2012, the study “Racial Bias in the Perception of Other’s Pain” looked at pain perception as it related to white and black NFL players, in addition to a series of pain-related comparison scenarios (accidentally stapling your hand versus someone of another race stapling their hand), finding that participants consistently rated the pain experience of blacks lower. And in 2014, Social Psychological & Personality Science found a “super-humanization bias” when whites looked at blacks, more quickly assigning terms like ghost, paranormal and spirit to black people.

The aforementioned “Racial Bias” study summed it up best: “[P]eople assume that, relative to Whites, Blacks feel less pain because they have faced more hardship.” Essentially, unconscious biases make blacks seem not just inhuman, but arguably magical beings.

It doesn’t seem unreasonable to believe that this is rooted in the slave dynamics between blacks and whites, where whippings, rapes, starvation and hangings were used to “motivate” and control blacks. While the country and its residents still struggle to find if there’s a right apology for the ills of slavery or if there’s one needed, the legacy of it remains clear today.

All of this is to say that Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation has perhaps unintentionally come at the right time. Then and now, Birth of a Nation succeeds in capturing not just the past, but our present too.

The movie, detailing Nat Turner’s famous slave rebellion, has been hotly anticipated since its debut at the Sundance Film Festival. It is fiery, soulful, cathartic, shameful, bloody, sad, empowering and ultimately imperfect, which is to say, it’s America and American. Slavery is still a sin we’ve yet to atone for, though many would lead you to believe it’s a debt that’s been handsomely repaid through its abolishment, the Civil Rights Era and Barack Obama. It can be hard to see such a narrative persist, and it’s why we should never actually tire of projects like Birth of a Nation — there’s no limit on reminding us that we haven’t fully addressed where we are now as a country. These stories still serve a purpose in the wider tapestry of American history in much the same way we continue to tell WWII stories.

But we should also hold it in appropriate regard. The movie is good, but again, it also came at the right time. A week before its wide release, Marvel and Netflix offered perhaps one of the best continuations to the Nat Turner/slavery story. The trailers for Luke Cage showed the titular actor, played by Mike Colter, striding down a hallway, a hail of bullets from a series of off-camera guns bouncing off the superhero given invulnerable skin through an experimental accident. He’s clad only in a hoodie, and he advances assuredly toward the guns. Many people have understandably taken offense to this imagery and premise; given the recent spate of violent deaths of black men at the hands of guns and police, do we really need a story glorifying the idea that a superhuman black man can’t be harmed? It’s a good question given the climate and cries from #blacklivesmatter and the movement’s many, many supporters.

Which is why such concerns erroneously play into criticism about Luke Cage being about a moment in much the same way that Birth’s adulation might feel like a response to Hollywood’s stubborn whiteness. That’s to say that both overlook history; before and likely after these projects, blacks have been and will continue to be hunted, murdered and isolated in the country. Assigning these concerns to the times should be seen as a means to resiliently maintain narratives about black injustice, not to figure out how these projects create or perpetuate them.

As Nat Turner meets his inglorious end via a hanging, we’re reminded of how the country still uses violence to silence our voice and our rights to equal footing in the country. While fictional, Luke Cage represents the resilience of the black spirit in the face of so much injustice; an unwavering, unapologetic invulnerability that won’t be shaken by doubt, injustice, violence or law.

Luke Cage’ s opening theme imagery reminds us of this complicated history blacks share with the country; as the bridgework image forms on his back, for a moment it looks like the latticework of a slave master’s whippings. Both stories reach across centuries at each other, and while Birth of a Nation’s iconic image is that of a defiant Turner noosed by the American flag, Luke Cage showcases an equally defiant black man standing in front of a ramshackle urban background.

That double image shares something with Birth of a Nation that Parker and company undoubtedly relate to: scars of the past. It’s a reminder that there’s an unfulfilled apology to black Americans who have now found themselves passed back and forth between two modern-day settings: the city and the prisons. For a largely sorry set of circumstances, the country at large still feels rather unmoved to issue solutions to all this, nor even an apology.

And that, perhaps, will be what Birth of a Nation will also be remembered for upon its release — its placement during a time that the art of the apology has had the American public in its sway for the better part of 2016. For starters, the celebration and adulation of this movie was in itself unapologetic; it was heaped with praise and excitement from moviegoers, industry people and the media before any substantial film was really released coming out of Sundance.

That the film received epic praise at times felt like an apology — or at least an overcorrection — for the previous year’s scrutiny arising from #Oscarssowhite and the increasing criticism in and around the awards season about representative stories, actors and opportunities. This doesn’t limit Birth of a Nation, nor does it, or should it, reduce its quality — black folks will be the first to tell you that progress and representation shouldn’t be reliant on pity as much as necessity.

But it’s not unfair to think that Nate and Nat are being embraced not only because of the compelling story told through their skin, but also because of the climate that they’ve arrived in. In Hollywood, Birth of a Nation might feel like substantial progress toward a very public industry debt owed to the American public, and so it’s likely that industry wonks and media types are already trying to calculate the appropriate victory lap for a movie that’s also been tied to its star and director laboring under his own apology, too.

It’s been well-chronicled at this point about Nate Parker and rape allegations against him from his time as a college student. Discussing it now brings for everyone — folks eager to support and those vexed about supporting the actor and the film; the studio backing Birth, the victim’s family, and Parker himself — a collective sigh. In the absence of a clear explanation, there’s only rampant interpretation, and so it becomes hard to divorce art and artist; when Nat Turner witnesses the horrors of a rape that inspires him to become something bigger — a movement — it’s easy to muse if Parker is working through his own redemption story at the same time, especially as that aspect of Turner’s awakening is done with creative license.

Coupled with the litany of interviews he’s done about the rape allegations, Parker’s statements have incited more furor than confidence; his vagueness about any sort of contrition feels familiar and heavy in a year that’s had us embroiled in an election season where both party candidates struggle with the art of apology too.

On one side, Hilary Clinton has tried to walk a similar line around apology; her response to controversies like her email server and her use of the term “super predators” to describe young black men have largely amounted to I can admit that these were unfortunate, complex incidents, a rhetorical stance that has left many already aligned against her feeling doubly doubtful and enraged. Her supporters, like Parker’s too, have often tried to couch this in conspiracy; a tireless shadow network of power determined to undermine their success. There’s plenty of justification for this sort of worry; history is replete with the evils of supremacy contorting situations to limit the power and progress of the few that climb to these heights. But what conspiracy theorists tend to overlook is the obvious; that the wounds that Clinton and Parker find themselves contending are largely self-inflicted.

But there’s the other side of the apology too: Donald Trump. A man who has unapologetically risen to the top of the ranks in the Republican Party with an equally unapologetic message about not only where the country is going, but what’s held it back (everyone from women, to Mexicans, to blacks, to the disabled), and where, under his small hands, it’s bound to return to again (greatness). He’s been erratic, fiery, blasphemous, but effective — and consistent, too. Whether embattled over his nonexistent policy platforms or his prior business and personal transgressions — before and during the election — he refuses to give ground, and his stubbornness at the rhetorical pulpit makes him not a relic of an America we used to fear, as some would have you believe, but the ongoing descendant of an America that’s never truly grown from its own contradictory roots based in the founding fathers and the thousands of Christian slave masters who also believed that the country needed to be great.

All three of these figures implore us to move on and see past their transgressions, and in that, they share a common-held sentiment in America about the ongoing discussion about the impact of slavery, a sort of This still? Get over it! — the sort of sentiments that feel familiar to those studies about black pain and resilience. It’s the notion that the trauma of slavery was both real and horrific, but that it’s in everyone’s interest — especially a black populace seen as stubbornly holding onto it, even as we continue watching our communities starved, shot and marginalized — to move on.

To make America great again, we need to be stronger together, and implicit in that is that blacks will play — wittingly or unwittingly — a contributing role while bearing the familiar stings of a past that feels ever present. That we will undoubtedly be pulled through and persistent says nothing about the next four years, but everything about the 200 years stretching behind and ahead of us.

That in itself is black magic.