An Honest Conversation About the Film, the Storytelling, and the Controversy
by John Bucher (@johnkbucher)
This week, audiences will finally get to see for themselves what all the talk has been about when The Birth of A Nation finally hits theaters. The power of the film, Oscar-worthy performances, and the personal lives of the creators have all been in the news for months now. As writers, storytellers, and artists, it is a film we will all be engaging on different levels.
I sat down with Tawanna Benbow, a Los Angeles-based creator and writer to talk about our experiences while watching the film together. She holds a Master’s Degree in Theology and Art and is completing her PhD in Mythology and Depth Psychology, all while continuing to look into the intersection between art, story, performance, and the black experience. We sat down and spoke as fellow artists, but also as a black woman and a white man who experienced this film in the theater together.
John Bucher: Let’s start out by talking a little bit about our familiarity with this story. Did you know who Nat Turner was before the film? Were you familiar with his story?
Tawanna Benbow: I was. But like only a quarter of the story, and I don’t even know if it was really a quarter of the story. It’s the piece of history that you get in Black History Month, normally — Nat Turner was a slave who led an uprising that lasted about 48 hours. They didn’t get very far, and that’s all I knew prior to this film.
John Bucher: I grew up listening to a lot of old school hip hop, and so groups like Public Enemy would reference Nat Turner. I also knew that he had led a slave revolt, but the part of the story I had no idea about, and what to me makes it a really interesting story, is that Nat Turner was a preacher.
Tawanna Benbow: I have heard through reading different articles that this has been a pet project of Nate Parker’s for a long time. He’s telling Nat Turner’s story, and so he knew the fullness and the full scope of who this person was and felt that his story needed to be told. I tip my hat to him for doing the research and unfolding such a powerful, profound, and merited life.
John Bucher: Let’s talk for a minute about the writing and the storytelling itself. As an artist, how did the way that the story unfolded strike you? What really resonated with you about the way it’s written?
Tawanna Benbow: Nate is an actor. I’ve heard a lot of stories about when actors see the roles they want aren’t coming and the parts of substance aren’t being presented to us, we start to create and develop our own work. I really do believe that there are different lenses to tell stories from. Some are a lot more cinematic with regard to landscape. Sometimes, stories are character-driven. Sometimes, they’re plot-driven. I see this as a character-driven film. The fact that Nate is an actor provided nuances in the storytelling, which is so powerful to me. What about for you?
John Bucher: I was really taken by the journey and character arc of Nat Turner. I thought this was really going to be a difficult task — to convince us that not only was he going to lead a slave rebellion but that this preacher actually would make us side with him in killing people. I thought, that’s a tall order for any storyteller, but he masterfully executed the narrative so that we understand why that was necessary, and that’s a difficult thing to do. I thought the writing was absolutely spot on as far as taking the audience through a really complex emotional journey.
Tawanna Benbow: I don’t know that I feel like he really wanted to justify it. I know he wanted to present it.
John Bucher: Good point.
Tawanna Benbow: What he did wasn’t his original end goal. I think Nate just wanted to lay out this man’s story, and we’ll get into more how it parallels today, but I think he just wanted to give it a platform and just let it breathe.
John Bucher: I really appreciate you making that differentiation, because I think that’s a really important nuance in looking at this film. I think you’re right. I don’t necessarily think he’s trying to justify every decision Nat made as much as give voice and platform to this man and his story. I did find myself siding with him, though. I also think this gets into some of the complexities about who Nat was, because he was raised understanding the God of the Biblical Old Testament that sometimes says it is appropriate to go in and do the things Nat does.
Tawanna Benbow: Right. I think that’s what makes it such an intricate story and leads us to the fact that it’s not just a piece of history, but I really do feel like it begs to bring to the forefront our struggles with faith. He had been deemed and anointed from an early age. “You are a prophet. You are a visionary. You’re going to do these things.” There was a great umbrella of responsibility that he was shouldering, but he grew into it so gracefully and so wonderfully. He couldn’t avoid that the external circumstances weren’t matching internally. It’s like this tug and pull. You know what you want to believe, but the circumstances of your everyday life are like a complete contradiction of that. Show me anyone who hasn’t had that kind of struggle with ethics or morality in their faith. I don’t know anyone that hasn’t.
John Bucher: So true.
I don’t want to spend too much time on this, because Nate was found not guilty of any charges, but I do think it’s important that we briefly mention the controversy surrounding the film. I’m finding it a bit hard to swallow in that we don’t hold any other filmmakers to those standards that have been accused of crimes and even found guilty. It’s hard for me to understand the issue since he was exonerated in a court of law.
Tawanna Benbow: When I heard about all the controversy, I researched it and unpacked it myself. I sided with him. It wasn’t that I think he was flippant in the beginning, but to bring this up just as the film is about to launch is a game changer. The conversation should be about the film. He broke records and this was a grassroots project — it was a “pull yourself up by the bootstraps,” which is so inspiring to artists like myself who have passion projects. Like you said, the fact that there was already a verdict that was served… We should accept that. I’m like you. It’s a hard pill to swallow.
John Bucher: Why is this story important right now for every audience to see, and what would you hope that a white audience might walk away from the film with?
Tawanna Benbow: If you look at the journey that Nat took, it seems connected to the journey that Black men are taking now and that we as a people have taken. The circumstances, the mentality, the statements that were made, the traumas that we were seeing done to Black bodies on the screen — it’s today. I feel like the timing of this film is so important. We were in the movie theater together watching this and at the end of the film there was a silence. Whether you are black or white, you could not deny the images that you saw, and it speaks to a greater veil being lifted.
That’s what’s happening on social media now and with groups like the Black Lives Matter movement. When you’ve seen people getting killed in the middle of the street, you have no words. You have to deal with what’s before you. I hope this film brings a greater level of understanding and awakening – and perhaps compassion. One complex take away of the film is that kindness is not necessarily respect. One slave owner in the film compared himself to another and says, “That slave owner wouldn’t have let you do that, because they wouldn’t have been that kind to you.” That supposed kindness doesn’t equate respect, honor, or love. How about you? What were your takeaways?
John Bucher: For me, I was reminded of the reason that this story is most powerfully presented in the cinematic format. The way that we engage with film is to sit, watch, and listen. I was reminded as a white person, that is the best thing I can do right now — listen. When you are in a privileged part of the culture, you feel like it is your right to speak into every issue and to put your opinion into every issue. I was reminded that this is actually a time for me to sit and listen, and maybe, the only question that I need to be asking is, how can I help? How can I make things better? For me, that was my big takeaway — let me be someone who listens.
Birth of a Nation is in theaters on Friday, October 7.
John Bucher is a writer, speaker, and story consultant based out of Los Angeles. He is the author of several books including The Inside Out Story and Master of the Cinematic Universe: The Secret Code to Writing in the New World of Media. He has written for entities ranging from HBO to U.S. Ambassadors. He teaches at The LA Film Studies Center and has conducted story seminars on five continents. He can be reached on Twitter @johnkbucher and through his site, tellingabetterstory.com.