I went to a screening of "The Birth of a Nation" with my 85-year-old mother whose energy and interests continue to belie her age. She was the best date to go with to this screening. Her grandfather, my great grandfather, was a Turner, David Turner. Just like Nat Turner, he came from Southampton, Virginia. Unlike, Nat Turner, he was born barely free. I wonder just how free he was before coming north with my great grandmother, Ella Jones, whom he married in 1903. Jim Crow, no doubt ruled. His thirst couldn't be quenched just anywhere unless he carried his own bottle of "pop". And when he married my great grandmother at the age of 26, he was still someone's boy day in and day out, and definitely both he and his wife were still "colored" abbreviated, "Col" on their marriage license.
At first, I asked myself, "Do I really need to see another movie about slavery?" "Do I really want to feel my breath getting heavy and eyes well up when yet another young enslaved woman is called upon to satisfy the master's friends or when an enslaved man steps out of line and gets beaten back into his place?" No. There is no film I need to see, just some that I should and this was one of them.
It's a beautiful film, (Bravo, Nate Parker.) if such a film can be beautiful. There are gloriously sun-filled scenic shots. There's a joyous wedding celebration and a giggle every now and then. Giggle. It's an odd word to use when talking about a film on slavery. Maybe chuckle is better, a more sturdy word for a reprehensible act of man against man, and woman. A little comic relief never hurt a slave film, I guess.
"Mother, you want some popcorn? I'm really not in the mood for it tonight. Somehow watching a film about slavery and its horrors and munching on popcorn just doesn't seem right." My mother chuckled. " I wouldn't mind some candy." I offered her a mint.
Just like films before "Birth of a Nation", that same heavy feeling crept up on me. Memories came back like the time my sister, stepsister, cousin and I were asked out of a pool in the late 60's in LA where a friend, a white woman lived in the complex. She was the mother of my cousin's boyfriend. I remember the fury in her eyes as she went to a desk and whipped out notepaper to make her anger known in writing to management. I thought back to just a few weeks ago, when in the laundry room of my building on the Upper East Side, a Trinidadian woman upon discovering that she knew a friend of mine in Trinidad promised to try and connect us, asked, "How many days a week do you work in this building?" She thought we were both housekeepers. On Facebook, white former colleagues and friends I grew up with in the advertising business have retired; they travel and live their dreams effortlessly. No doubt they earned more than I from the first day they entered the ad business.
How can a film depicting what happened over 200 years ago be so timely? It's easy. The scourge of slavery keeps on giving. It permeates every bit of our days even when we don't see it. Hence, "I don't see color," white people will boast as they leave the office to go home to their white neighborhoods, their white country clubs and white social events. They speak the truth. They don't see color.
I remember my great-grandfather during his last days. He lived in a nursing home in Brooklyn for colored people, it said so on the façade of the building. My grandmother and great aunt would come back home after a visit and tick off what he ate. "He had some milk, and we made him have a little Jell-O." We'd go and visit him, his eyes staring into nowhere as we were busy with child's play. Maybe he was rewinding his life in his mind, happy to be in Brooklyn, New York where he walked down the street with his wife in peace. Walk in peace. Not so easy for many these days. You can't sit in your car in peace. You can't go home in peace. You can't live in peace in your neighborhood or outside of your neighborhood. You can't even do laundry in peace.
I covered my eyes during the gory scenes in "The Birth of the Nation". I got mad when a little girl was taken out of the bed of an older white man who was soon violently put out of the his misery or was it the misery of the rebels and young girl?
Recently, I was talking to a friend about where I live and how much I like my apartment. "But I get kind of tired of seeing the black servitude," I said. It's not free but it still seems like a natural. We're handed their young to raise eight hours a day, and we tend to their old until the last day." Many, I'm sure are happy to have these jobs, they come from islands like Jamaica still scarred by the slave trade. I'm not mad with them.
After the screening, I said to my mother, "In light of what's going on these days in the country, while there has been great change and progress, the only real change has been the costumes." She nodded her head in agreement. At 85, she should know. It's her birthright and mine too.