Most of you probably know about D.W. Griffith’s horrible 1915 film, The Birth of a Nation. It glorified the Ku Klux Klan. President Woodrow Wilson, a virulent racist, showed it in the White House.
African-American filmmaker Nate Parker’s new film with the same title is the story of Nat Turner, who led the great Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. There is already a lot of buzz about this film, which will be released on October 7. It has generated rave advance reviews and sparked an unprecedented bidding war for distribution rights at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. I’m eager to see the film, which I hear is presented from Turner’s point of view. The trailer below features Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit, written by my father, Abel Meeropol.
Some may wonder what Strange Fruit, a song about lynching written in the late 1930’s, has to do with a slave uprising that took place over 100 years earlier. I don’t know if Strange Fruit is played in the body of the movie, so I don’t know how entwined the song is with the plot. But despite the 100-year gap, given what I know about Nat Turner’s rebellion, the film and song are well matched.
Strange Fruit is often referred to as a “sorrowful dirge,” or as a “protest song.” While it does fit within the protest song category, I think that term misses its essence. Strange Fruit is an attack song. With his couplet “Pastoral scene of the gallant South. The bulging eyes and twisted mouth,” Abel was saying that beneath its genteel facade the South was rotten. Its scornful tone infuriated many whites so much that its performance was banned in some cities and radio stations refused to play it. There were riots at some of the venues where it was performed. In 1940, my father was called before a committee investigating communist school teachers and asked if the Communist Party paid him to write the song.
Similarly, the 2016 version of The Birth of a Nation is an attack movie. It isn’t about non-violent protesters peacefully asking for desegregation and civil rights in the 1960’s. Instead, it is a justification – and possibly a glorification – of an armed rebellion.
How would my father feel about the use of his greatest work in this manner? He once said he wrote Strange Fruit because he hated lynching and he hated the people who perpetrated it. Abel was no turn-the-other-cheek pacifist. He would have applauded the slaves taking up arms. He would have loved having his song used in this new film.
I look forward to seeing the movie. I intend to watch it through two sets of eyes, my own and my father’s.
[See Robert's previous guest blog about Strange Fruit here, to read more from Robert about this iconic song, and see a video that reflects on the surprising convergence between Billie Holiday and Ethel Rosenberg and includes a live performance by Pamela Means.]
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