Rape, racial justice, and rehabilitation are on Hollywood's doorstep.
Nate Parker is the breakout director and star of the much-anticipated film "The Birth of a Nation," due out in October, a century after D.W. Griffith's racist movie of the same name. It emerged at the Sundance Film Festival as a compelling film about the 1831 Nat Turner rebellion. But it has been overshadowed by the terrible way Parker and Fox Searchlight addressed Parker's 2001 acquittal in a rape case in which he and college wrestling teammate (now co-writer) Jean Celestin had sex with a drunk woman. The studio showed more concern for the film's Oscar chances than for the woman, who killed herself in 2012.
The controversy over Parker's past sparks a memory from my own. I was 25. An older man invited me to dinner at his home in Southwest DC, where he spoke animatedly of how composer Leonard Bernstein had once spent a day with him giving insights into "Mass," the theatre piece he composed for the opening of the Kennedy Center.
My host kept refilling my drink as the evening wore on. I finally said I needed to go, by which point I was plastered. He said I was in no condition to walk home, and urged me to stay over. But he wanted sex, and I did not. I thanked him and began my unsteady walk home. I had never been in that condition. As a student at Villanova, I had been the one who stayed late at a party so my friends finishing the keg had someone sober to see them safely back across Lancaster Avenue.
I would likely have been raped that night in Southwest had my survival instinct not propelled me out the door. But I would not have called it that; I would have felt foolish and blamed myself. I did not then have Beverly Johnson's vivid description in Vanity Fair of the day she realized Bill Cosby had given her a cup of drugged cappuccino. She cursed him and escaped.
Being impaired by drugs or alcohol does not give permission to others to take sexual advantage of you, any more than the unjust barriers to getting a rape conviction make the accused morally innocent. Parker's acquittal was partly based on his accuser having previously given him oral sex. But as 22-year-old Nafisa Ahmed tweeted, "Just because I gave you $5 in the past, doesn't mean I have to give you $5 in the future." The optics were not improved by Celestin joining in, as if he found tempting leftovers in the fridge.
Despite the controversy, I am eager to see Parker's film on its own merits. I have never been a big proponent of boycotts as an activist tactic. I prefer engagement to disengagement. Yet I respect that boycotts are a legitimate tool of activism.
I have other differences with Parker. He associates homosexuality with what he disparagingly calls the feminization of black men. At a time when producer and director Lee Daniels is breaking ground with gay characters in his television series "Empire," Parker's homophobia is sadly dated.
Parker's film redresses a century-old artistic crime in the portrayal of our nation's racist past. Birther-in-Chief Donald Trump's thinly veiled white supremacist presidential campaign shows that the past is not even past.
But the value of art does not excuse wrongdoing by an artist. I feel little sympathy for these men after reading the details of the case. They need to show more contrition and atonement. Still, Parker was acquitted of the rape charge. Celestin won on appeal, though not on the substance.
And there are blatant racial double standards. Roman Polanski fled the United States in 1978 after pleading guilty to "Unlawful Sexual Intercourse with a minor" in a plea bargain. Yet he won an Oscar for Best Director in 2002 for "The Pianist," which he could not come to America to receive.
Our understanding of sexual consent has fortunately evolved, though the deck remains stacked against women making rape accusations. At the same time, I have to ask: doesn't an African American artist deserve the same chance for rehabilitation that was extended to a white one? I have no easy solution, just questions and an old memory of vulnerability.
Copyright © 2016 by Richard J. Rosendall. All rights reserved.