How to Swim


On Film

The Birth of a Nation, Moonlight, and the black protest tradition.

A still from Moonlight 

Last week, I took a train to Harlem to see The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s retelling of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. Released in October, the film had already disappeared from most theatres, including my local cinema in Brooklyn. At the matinee at the Magic Johnson 9 cinema on Frederick Douglas Boulevard, there were a total of three people, and I was there with a friend.

The Birth of a Nation was supposed to be the film of the year. Fox Searchlight acquired the world rights for the film for $17.5 million dollars, a record-breaking deal for the Sundance Film Festival, where it premiered in January. Nate Parker, who produced, wrote, directed and starred in the film, instantly became a media darling, and the Academy nomination for best picture seemed all but assured. After the #OscarsSoWhite boycott of the Academy Awards, here was a FilmSoBlack, made by a black director, in which heroic slave rebels slaughter their white masters. The film seemed to speak to the insurrectionary spirit of contemporary black America while also offering a belated corrective to D. W. Griffith’s eponymous ode to the Confederacy, released almost exactly a century earlier. 

Not since Elaine May’s Ishtar has a widely anticipated film flopped so spectacularly. By now, everyone knows the reasons for the film’s failure: heralded in the press as an almost saintly figure, Nate Parker turned out to have a less than saintly past. In 1999, he and his friend Jean Celestin, who co-wrote the film’s script, were accused of sexual assault by a female classmate at Penn State, where they were wrestlers and students. Parker was acquitted, partly based on testimony that he had previously had consensual sexual relations with the woman; Celestin was convicted, and sentenced to prison, though the conviction was later overturned. Shortly before the film was released, the story of the case resurfaced, along with its previously unreported epilogue: in 2012, the accuser had taken her own life. Parker’s response only made things worse: he described the case as a “painful moment” in his life, and spoke of his wife and five daughters as if they were proof of his redemption. He even brought his six-year-old daughter to an interview about the case.

When The Birth of a Nation finally appeared in theatres, it was dead on arrival. That white audiences didn’t turn out is hardly surprising: they have never had much appetite for films about black suffering. More noteworthy is Nate Parker’s failure to attract black audiences, or intellectual supporters. Thanks to the odious history of lynching, prominent black men battling allegations of sexual violence have generally been able to count on a certain amount of black sympathy, or at least the benefit of the doubt, particularly when the accuser has been white (as in Parker’s case). In spite of views on race that were anathema to most black Americans, Clarence Thomas struck a chord with many when he denounced Anita Hill’s claims of sexual harassment as a “high-tech lynching” during his 1991 confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. And as Ezra Edelman’s extraordinary recent documentary, O. J.: Made in America, has reminded us, O. J. Simpson was acquitted by a largely black female jury in part because race trumped gender in Los Angeles, where the police had subjected black residents to a veritable reign of terror for more than a half century.

That was in 1995; two decades later, things look very different. Parker’s most vocal critics have been black women. Roxane Gay wrote in The New York Times that she would not see the film because she could not “separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.” Tiffany Drayton, writing in the online magazine Clutch, observed that even if Parker was acquitted, he was still collaborating with Celestin, who was not, and urged black women to boycott the film.

I doubt that seeing the film would have changed their minds. As Vinson Cunningham argued in The New YorkerThe Birth of a Nation is a decidedly middlebrow film, with clumsy auteurist flourishes lifted from Steve McQueen’s powerful 12 Years a Slave. (There are enough burning candles to make night-on-the-plantation look like a séance, or a Pottery Barn advertisement.) But the chief liability for the film—and for Parker—is its depiction of sexual violence and black female passivity. Parker portrays Nat Turner as a proud but acquiescent slave preacher who is moved to take up arms by the rape of two women: his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King) and Esther (Gabrielle Union), a slave rendered mute by her ordeal. As he mobilizes his fellow male slaves, they experience what Sartre called “fraternity-terror,” the exhilarating sense of solidarity that binds men at war. The only role assigned to women is to cheer their men from the sidelines, as their honor is avenged. (Gabrielle Union confessed in the Los Angeles Times that she had been raped at gunpoint at twenty-four, and that “since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”) As Salamishah Tillet writes in The New York Times, the silence of Parker’s female characters “mutes their ability to act, rendering their rebellion virtually nonexistent in a film about revolt and freedom.”

This male-centered vision of rebellion is also, as Tillet notes, profoundly “out of step with the cause it has often been associated with, Black Lives Matter,” a movement led in large part by women, some of them members of the LGBT community. The decentralized structure of Black Lives Matter owes more to the participatory, horizontal organizing model of Fannie Lou Hamer and Ella Baker than it does to charismatic leadership of Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm X. In a movement where all black lives matter equally, regardless of gender or sexual preference; where concerns over sexual discrimination and violence are not considered secondary to black male empowerment; and where traditional definitions of black masculinity are being deconstructed on popular television shows like Empire and Atlanta, Parker’s film feels like a curious throwback to the patriarchal black nationalism of the late 1960s, when, as Stokely Carmichael notoriously declared, the “only position for women … is prone.” (It’s worth noting, too, that Carmichael’s views on gender have been echoed by the most racially inflammatory presidential candidate in recent history, and that they have received their most eloquent rebuke from a black woman, Michelle Obama.)


Just as The Birth of a Nation collapsed, a very different kind of black-themed film arose. Barry Jenkins’s Moonlight, based on a play by Tarell McCraney, is a work of intimate, anti-heroic, unsentimental portraiture, rather than a Spielbergian epic; it explores an individual’s lonely, introspective struggle for liberation and self-acceptance, not the blood-soaked birth of a nation. The story of Chiron, a gay black man from the projects with a crack-addicted mother, feels both more contemporary, and somehow grander in scale, than Nat Turner’s. Rather than protest, it affirms; and what it affirms is the complex humanity of its characters, not one of whom is white, although the confining presence of an indifferent, if not hostile, white-dominated society is keenly felt at the edges of the frame.

James Baldwin wrote that in black fiction “there is a great space where sex ought to be; and what usually fills this space is violence.” The threat of violence is ever present for Chiron, who lives in a Miami housing project called Liberty Square, where both Jenkins and McCraney grew up. (The centaur “Chiron” was a wounded healer in Greek mythology.) In the first part of the film, he is a shy, fearful ten-year-old boy (Alex R. Hibbert), hounded as a “faggot” by neighborhood bullies. The man who takes him in and teaches him how to protect himself, Juan (the magnificent Mahershala Ali), is his mother’s drug dealer. Juan walks with the wariness his profession requires, but it does not save him from his adversaries.

Yet Moonlight is a film about the varieties of love that emerge in conditions of urban violence, not the varieties of violence that, as Baldwin suggested, have conditioned, and even prevented, the expression of black love. There is, for example, the paternal affection that little Chiron experiences when Juan teaches him how to swim: only when we see a black boy cradled in a black man’s arms, just above water, do we realize how rare such scenes are in American film. There is the maternal tenderness of Juan’s girlfriend Teresa (Janelle Monnáe), who looks after him when his mother (Naomi Harris) is looking for her fix. And there is the breathless desire that the teenage Chiron (Ashton Sanders), in the film’s second part, feels when his friend Kevin (Jharrel Jerome) makes love to him on a moonlit beach: an experience so startling that he apologizes to his lover.

Soon after, the space of desire is filled by violence, when Kevin, caving in to peer pressure, beats up Chiron outside of school, a scene deeply reminiscent of Amiri Baraka’s 1964 play The Toilet. In that play, a teenage boy is brutally attacked by a gang led by his lover, who wraps his arms around him in an ambiguous, pietà-like embrace just before the curtain falls. But unlike Baraka’s play—and unlike some of Baldwin’s own stories of doomed gay love—Moonlight does not end with the grim triumph of “fraternity-terror” in the form of a homophobic mob. In the film’s third and final part, Chiron and Kevin meet again a decade later, in the restaurant where Kevin works as a cook. The adult Chiron (Trevante Rhodes) has evolved into a brawny drug dealer, much like Juan; he tells Kevin that he built himself “up from the ground” during a stint in prison, and that no man has touched him since high school, his voice trembling with the vulnerability his fortress-like body conceals. Kevin (André Holland) has also spent time in prison; he is a father, but he lives alone, and though barely getting by, he finally feels free to be his own man. Toward the end of the film, the men embrace; they are fully clothed, yet more naked to each other than ever. What will come of this is uncertain, but the decision is at last theirs to make. The image left me thinking, again, of a passage in Baldwin: “Our humanity is our burden, our life; we need not battle for it; we need only to do what is infinitely more difficult—that is, accept it.”


Moonlight has been rapturously praised for its depiction of same-sex desire between black men, but its treatment of the so-called “culture of poverty” is no less striking, and no less symptomatic of a shift in black cultural politics. Like Chiron, both McCraney, who identifies as gay, and Jenkins, who is straight, are the sons of mothers who suffered from crack addiction; both depended on neighbors when their mothers were unable to provide care. They are well aware of the dangers to body and soul faced by people growing up in Liberty Square: on Fresh Air, Jenkins told Terry Gross of having felt “unworthy,” fearing that he was “not deserving of love because of my DNA.” The scenes between Chiron and his desperate, reckless mother (Naomi Harris) bear witness to the emotional injuries inflicted by oppression. But while Jenkins and McCraney don’t sanitize the world of the black poor, neither do they see it as, in Donald Trump’s words, “living in hell.” In the character of Juan, they have created a father figure of riveting ambiguity, tormented by an unspeakable inner moral strife. Juan feeds Chiron home-cooked food, and his mother crack. He nearly breaks down when Chiron asks him if he is his mother’s dealer. It is Juan who tells Chiron that “faggot” is simply a word some people use to make gay people feel bad: an explanation that McCraney says he heard from a drug dealer when he was a young boy.

Juan and the adult Chiron, who has followed in his footsteps, are flawed survivors, rather than, as Hillary Clinton once put it, “super-predators.” In daring not only to imagine black men in love, but to treat drug dealers with empathy, Moonlight embodies, more than any film yet, the sensibility of the Black Lives Matter generation. It rebels, moreover, against a black protest tradition in literature and film that has tended to depict the ghetto as an inferno in an effort to stir white compassion. The defining work of that tradition is Richard Wright’s Native Son, whose anti-hero, Bigger Thomas, strikes out blindly against the force of oppression, driven by inarticulate wrath. Baldwin famously accused Wright of having created, in Bigger Thomas, an heir of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom, a “continuation of … that monstrous legend it was written to destroy”: “The failure of the protest novel,” he continued, “lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power, in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.” What makes Moonlight such a transcendent work is that it illuminates these invisible lives, beyond the categories that have blinded so many to their humanity and their beauty.

Adam Shatz is a contributing editor at the London Review of Books, and a fellow in residence at the New York Institute for the Humanities.