We Need to Talk About Nate Parker

Nate Parker is problematic at best, and a criminal at worst. But what are we supposed to do about it?
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Nate Parker at a screening of <em>Birth of a Nation.</em>
Nate Parker at a screening of Birth of a Nation.
The Hollywood Reporter

When the first trailer for Birth of a Nation hit the internet, I was ecstatic. I had heard rave reviews about the film, headed up by the rising Nate Parker. I watched Beyond the Lights a few years ago (I highly recommend it) and enjoyed his performance in that movie, and the buzz around Birth was so electric that I had literally marked the film’s premiere date on my iPhone calendar so that I could find the nearest theater and see the film. After seeing the two trailers for the project, I couldn’t wait to see it in full.

One of the first headlines I saw today was from Variety in which Parker was asked about a case against him from his days in college ― he and his friend had been charged with raping a woman.

My immediate reaction was one of anger, frustration, horror and disgust. All of those, however, were followed by a sort of resignation: resignation to a litany of hotep-ish conspiracy theories, cries of foul play, armchair defenders and anti-survivor trolling. More troubling, it was a resignation that seems so common when talking about celebrity perpetrators, and one that pops up more and more with each new report of violence.

It should first be noted that Birth of a Nation is exactly what the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences needs this awards cycle. I will be the least surprised person if Birth of a Nation wins Best Picture, and will only be minorly shocked if Parker picks up a Best Actor statuette for his role as Nat Turner.

White people love slave narratives. I say this as someone who watched 12 Years A Slave with a mixture of horror, disgust, and fascination. Finishing the film, it was a kind of white guilt catharsis in which I felt like I had exorcised some of the baggage every white person has (but few admit to) when it comes to the topic of slavery. Indeed, any slave narrative that ends with the main characters leaving the mean white people in the south to return to the safety of the nice white people in the north is one that warms all of our hearts. We see ourselves in the nice white people, because generally morality in films about slavery is concise and dichotomous. You know exactly where you stand with every character; rarely are there shades of anything resembling ambiguity.

It’s ironic, then, that Parker uses that moral no-man’s-land as his justification for why we should ignore his rape charges. One of the most deeply troubling quotes in his Variety issue is this one:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life.”

It is, if you think about it, brilliant on his part. Immediately, Parker is painting himself into a corner as a victim of circumstance ― or at the very least, a changed and humbled man. Rape, as Parker defines it, is the kind of thing you somehow overcome, like a shopping addiction or a propensity for reckless driving. Apparently one moves past violating another human being the same way you get over the death of a parakeet. The pain he endured, he implies, is far greater and far more permanent than that any victim would ever experience. We should be hurting for him, not her.

Parker proceeds on this winding sob story about how he’s much older and wiser now, with a wife and children, as if these things somehow remove his responsibility for raping somebody. By not being found guilty of all charges, he argues, he was innocent. That’s simply not how criminal law works, and no matter how many platitudes about “women speaking up” he throws into the mix, it doesn’t change the fact that a woman spoke up against him and now people are seeing her as a wrench in the gears of a movie’s roll-out. More importantly, his normalcy does not mean he cannot have been violent against another person. “Normal” people, with wives and daughters and white picket fences, do violent things all the time.

Of course, making things much easier for Parker, the woman he allegedly raped is dead and thus unable to defend herself. The transcripts of the trial at which his friend was found guilty and served time show a complete disregard for the woman’s well-being or health, and as far as I can tell from reading them Parker knows exactly what he’s doing. If you’ve dealt with someone who raped or assaulted you ― and I have ― the words have a certain bitter familiarity. There’s a casual non-apology, jovial platitudes, and a fierce desire to place all the blame on the victim.

But wait ― there’s more.

Parker is also kind of homophobic, as evidenced from his comment that he wants to “protect” the integrity of Black men and thus will never play a gay character. This message of Black masculinity as coming under fire from within and without by the advent of LGBT equality movements makes little sense. Conspiracy theorists will tell you that these changes are white-led attempts to destroy the Black race by making Black men impotent, but the issue is really one of masculinity. When Tyler Perry can punish a woman for being unfaithful with HIV in his films, it’s not out of the realm of possibility for Nate Parker to limit the range of Black men in cinema to those who only meet a certain standard of manliness. The integrity that Parker wants to protect is exclusively reserved for a certain type of Black man ― all other permutations of experience and identity be damned.

So we all get it. Nate Parker is problematic at best, and a criminal at worst. But what are we supposed to do about it? Simple: don’t give him your money.

It’s pretty clear to see what’s happening here. Fox Searchlight Pictures, who is distributing the film, wants to protect what they see as a surefire way to more or less guilt white Oscar voters into delivering a Best Picture award. (Seriously, there is no better way to make a white person feel uncomfortable than to put a movie about slavery in front of them and ask their opinion on it.) There is a machine led by rich white film executives doing everything they can to protect Parker from what they perceive as an inconvenience, and a barrier to both commercial and critical success. If they win, not only do they reap a hefty profit from the film but they get a large-scale, multi-million dollar white guilt exorcism to point to the next time they refuse to fund a Black-led independent film as proof that they’re “not that racist”.

And it’s worked in the past. Woody Allen has had a very successful career in film, even after marrying his much younger adopted daughter and allegedly molesting another daughter. Sean Penn allegedly tied Madonna to a chair and beat her and has two Oscars to show for it. Brokeback Mountain lost Best Picture to a downright terrible film about ― you guessed it ― racism with a dab of moralism because it was too controversial for the mainstream. The process of nomination and Oscar success isn’t really about quality, it’s about the strength and size of a campaign. Fox Searchlight can make the campaign for Birth of a Nation large and powerful. Parker has more power on his side.

If you think Nate Parker is a rotten person (to put it nicely) for having allegedly raped an unconscious woman in his dorm room, prove it. Don’t go see his movie. If you stop giving rapists your money, they will stop being able to produce things and then will hopefully fade into poverty and anonymity. I don’t buy songs by Dr. Luke or R. Kelly. I don’t watch Roman Polanski movies, and I’m not planning on watching any more with Johnny Depp in the lead. If you want to make a statement, do it with your wallet. There will be nothing more challenging for Fox to offer to Academy voters than a film that utterly bombed at the box office. If it does get nominations, perhaps their investment won’t have been worth it in the end. The point is, if you say you’re pro-survivor and anti-violence, don’t say it and then buy opening night tickets to see a film directed by and starring someone who is in total opposition to those values. It might seem pointless, like your $10 won’t make a big difference, but it’s a statement that you’re literally not buying excuses for violence ― and can put that money somewhere more productive.

I get that this might seem to some as a controversial stance. Some people might accuse me of being anti-Black, or just poking around in someone’s past. They might say that my survivorship precludes me from having an opinion because it will always be biased.

To them, I say this: if you took the energy that you put into defending a powerful man you do not know from accusations that he violated another human being without her consent and drove her to the point of suicide and put that into fighting for justice and resources for survivors, imagine what our world would look like. Imagine if you took the money you would spend on tickets to Birth of a Nation and donated it to organizations that provide resources for survivors of color, who are disproportionately affected by sexual violence. Try putting your rage against a system you benefit from against one only rapists do and see what happens.

Our words, our actions, and our beliefs have consequences. Nate Parker made a choice in that dorm room seventeen years ago. That choice has repercussions that exist today, and ones that the woman he raped likely could never escape. We do not protect ourselves from those who wield power abusively by defending or enabling them. Defending a rapist does not, unfortunately, exempt you from the possibility that you might one day be his target. It does not give you a pass from the consequences. Make choices that have positive consequences: dismantling systems of oppression and helping those affected by violence. A world without sexual violence, a world where the most powerful of perpetrators no longer wield such powerful influence, is a consequence I am eager to incur.