“The Birth of a Nation” film screening sparks conversation about racism in the U.S.

In honor of Black History Month, the Black Student Union (BSU) hosted a screening of the critically acclaimed 2016 film “The Birth of a Nation” on Feb. 21 to a small audience in DPAC.

Winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival U.S. drama grand jury prize, “The Birth of a Nation” is based on the true story of Nat Turner, a field slave turned preacher, and the historic revolt he led against a number of white slave owners in Virginia in 1831. The revolt resulted in the death of over 60 “white slave owning family members” which in turn, as a form of retribution, resulted in the killing of hundreds of black slaves, according to the film’s closing credits. 

Following the screening, BSU president and senior Cassandra Teneus led an open forum in which students and faculty shared their first impressions and overall thoughts on the film. Following general impressions, the discussion became centered on America’s slave owning past and its current racial climate. 

Senior Yaw Boateng noted, although he had heard of Turner’s story growing up, the film helped him understand the rebellion was not a long drawn-out ordeal, but rather a spur of the moment occurrence.

Junior Deron Hines said he was “fighting back tears” throughout the film. He said he was struggling to find the words to describe the pain he felt seeing African American men subjected to physical abuse and mistreatment, solely for being people who “look like me.”

He added, “There’s really nothing we could have done at that time. Now, all we can do is reflect.” 

One audience member noted the film did a good job in not glamorizing slavery, something she believes happens too often in popular culture and textbooks.       

Teneus noted how she had read a 2016 news article that reported on Texas’ distribution of a number of public school textbooks which depicted slaves as workers who weren’t treated that badly.      

In response, history professor Jon Huibregtse noted there is a major controversy in the history academic field in regards to what information gets published in history textbooks. He said history textbooks don’t always show all sides of history, as states such as Texas have a major pull in the decision making process as they are among publishers’ most lucrative customers.       

“When you see those kinds of things in the news or read about them on social media, those are the kind of things everybody can try and effect in a positive way,” he said. “It’s not just slavery. It’s all kinds of other issues in American history that are being whitewashed.” 

Junior Jackson Stevens said he took note of the similarities between the mistreatment of African Americans in the film and the continued delegitimization of black people today.     

“There was a study done where they ask a young black girl to point to the smart girl and she points to a white girl, and then to point to the pretty girl and she points to a white girl again,” Stevens said. “That was the most striking thing to me, seeing how the system changed but that the ideology is still the same.”

Teneus said it’s unfortunate that we can “still identify the similarities from 400 years ago to now” in regards to how minorities are treated in this country.

She said, “Although it’s not that bad,” she still finds it alarming that even to this day people are protesting for fair treatment.

Boateng said the movie was really “moving” and shined “a bright light on one of America’s biggest skeletons.”

He added he thought the discussion was beneficial.

“Everyone understood how important it was to know that this land was built on the blood of people who never saw freedom a day in their life,” he said.

Hines noted he believes not enough people come to events on campus where real discussions about race take place.

“Every time we talk about race, every time the discussion comes up, I always tell people, ‘It’s not “your fault that you’re white. It’s not my fault that I’m black, but we have to acknowledge that this is happening.’ We’ve acknowledged the Civil War. We’ve acknowledged every other war … but when it comes to race, nobody has anything beneficial to say, and it’s the most annoying thing.”  

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