(WARNING: Mild spoilers for The Birth of A Nation below)
I had the opportunity to see two different screenings of The Birth of a Nation at two different locations. The first location (let's call it "Location AA") was a predominately, if not entirely, African American audience. The second location (we'll call it "Location D") had a much more diverse audience. I was quite surprised when certain scenes occurred in the film and the audiences had either similar or completely different reactions altogether. If you haven't seen the movie yet, I do have a spoiler-free review that you can check out as well. Let's explore a few of those reactions to various scenes and characters.
The Same Reactions
I noticed that in both locations, everyone took kindly to the cute and romantic scenes between Nat Turner and Cherry. Subtle "awws" and gentle laughter could be heard as we saw both Nat and Turner's relationship grow and flourish. It was almost reminiscent of the reaction you would hear during a romantic comedy during some of those specific scenes.
Without question, during some of the brutal and graphic scenes of slaves being tortured, sexually abused, or being hung from trees, both audiences had the same reactions. It would range from being silent, shaken, or visibly disturbed.
The Similar Reactions
Whenever there was some sort of scene that showed the slaves being subjected to verbal abuse or casual racist situations (i.e. when the slave catchers would appear) there would be a collective groan from Location AA. In Location D, there was a bit more silence, though you could sense a level of discomfort as well.
Probably one of the more interesting reactions I noticed was the reaction to "Isaiah" played by Roger Guenveur Smith. At Location AA, for whatever reason, there was an instantaneous roar of laughter every single time he came on the screen. There were also a few laughs in Location D as well:
Such as during Nat's prayer during dinner, and Isaiah staring at him intensely.
My only guess would be that more African Americans are probably familiar with Smith's previous roles as being a dubious character, and possibly the stereotypical caricature of "house slaves."
The Different Reactions
During some of the religious scenes that involved Nat having to preach his supervised and selective sermon, Location AA would also collectively groan as very familiar scriptures were preached to the slaves. (i.e. "slaves obey your masters") Location D on the other hand — silent.
During the film there were some scenes when we began to see Nat evolve in his preaching, not only challenging the supervised, cherry-picked sermons he was supposed to preach, but his preaching began to ignite a fire within the slaves. He used scripture to counter many of the cherry-picked verses that were used against the slaves. (Fighting fire with fire.) During these moments, Location AA was cheering, shouts of "Amen," and there were pockets of applause. Location D was more silent.
During the actual revolt, the difference in the audience reactions probably struck me the hardest. While Location D was routinely silent, Location AA had almost a roar of cheer and exuberance as the killings began.
There was an especially loud response when the overseer who was found to be sleeping with children was killed, and the other slave master (who forcibly knocked out the teeth of his slave) was beheaded.
Lastly, the ending of the movie appeared to be the other biggest difference in the audiences. If you've been tracking the common theme, the audience of Location D was silent as the credits rolled. However, when the film was finished, there was a standing ovation with Location AA.
I really appreciated being able to see these different reactions. While all I can do is speculate, I think that the reactions from both audiences were rather telling. Location AA clearly was more connected, and maybe invested, in the film overall. There was laughing, crying, groans and cheers. The wide array of emotions and reactions I saw, in my opinion, validated just how good The Birth of a Nation actually was. We know movies are supposed to move us, and this movie pushed and pulled at your emotions one way or another.
I should probably also mention here that I do not believe that the African Americans who were cheering during the violent revolt are necessarily looking forward to enacting the same on our white counterparts in America. Rather, I think it was more so a matter of seeing evil being conquered. I would probably compare it to when you watch a movie like Schindler's List or similar film, and the feeling of joy when evil was challenged or stopped. Hopefully no one walks away from this thinking about "reverse racism" (whatever that means) or anything of the sort.
On the other hand, when I reflect on Location D, for the most part there was a lot of uncomfortable uneasiness. I think that's primarily due to more of a reality shock. Movies and media, unfortunately, serve as our new means of historical references (even if they are not historically accurate). So for some, who may have more of a selective memory of this country's ugly past, seeing such images may be truly discomforting, and I could definitely understand the overall silence.
Also, while Location D did have a diverse crowd, there may have been a bit more feelings of awkwardness because of that same diversity. Maybe some people didn't feel comfortable reacting a certain way, so as not to offend other people of different ethnic groups. Either way, it was quite fascinating to experience.
Have you seen The Birth of a Nation? What do you think about these different reactions? What was your reaction to the film? Share in the comments below. You can also check out my spoiler-free movie review of The Birth of A Nation here.
Watch the trailer for Birth of a Nation below: