Nate Parker's much heralded film, The Birth of a Nation, which reimagines the life of preacher, Nat Turner, and the slave rebellion he famously led in Virginia in 1831, should be Hollywood's celebrated darling in advance of its official October release. The film, which Parker wrote, directed, produced and starred in, wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival. But the resurrection of a 1999 rape case is threatening to derail a film of enormous import.
By now, audiences have learned that Parker and another writer on the film, Jean McGianni Celestine were charged with sexually assaulting an intoxicated female college student while all three were attending Penn State. Parker escaped conviction, in part because it was proven that he'd had consensual sex with the victim in the days prior to the rape. But Celestine was convicted. His case was eventually overturned on a technicality. Tragically, the victim, who was apparently harassed by fellow students after she pressed charges, committed suicide in 2012. It's worth noting that Penn State settled a civil case, awarding the victim $17,500 for failing to protect her from harassment.
There's been a morass of articles damning Parker and Celestine. Each has weighed a singularly knotty question: should audiences separate the artist from his art? Many editorials offered a resounding "no." Apparently, supporting the film is akin to both minimizing the crimes and overlooking the victim. But I agree with Parker who has said that The Birth of a Nation is "a healing mechanism for America." Sometimes a necessary message comes from an imperfect messenger. The Birth of a Nation is simply too important a film to shun given our country's current, abhorrent racial climate. Sadly, many Americans are unfamiliar with Nat Turner's valiant, necessary revolt, in which dozens of whites were killed. Parker plays a character American audiences are woefully unfamiliar with and perhaps purposely avoiding: an intelligent, masculine, astute, African American man who refused to campaign for his freedom choosing instead to take it by any means necessary. If Parker had directed a film light on enlightenment and heavy on levity, then I too would've called for a boycott. But this film and its message are larger than its creators.
That a slave film has garnered historic levels of interest, and, importantly is being backed by a major Hollywood distribution company--Fox Searchlight set a record when it purchased the film for nearly twenty million dollars--shouldn't be underestimated. African American moviegoers are routinely subjected to unflattering, stereotypical, films of little to no consequence--movies, which are typically as offensive as they are lowbrow. And while there are hugely influential African American Hollywood players, there aren't many who are creating material that is intelligent, revolutionary, and capable of creating the sort of dialogue that could reshape negative stereotypes about blacks, while challenging historical inaccuracies. Just look at the roles for which black actors and actresses have won Oscars: rogue cops, downtrodden single mothers, and obese mammies. America would benefit from seeing characters, like Nat Turner, who were educated, dignified, disciplined, and unwilling to remain docile in the face of systematic dehumanization. Furthermore, Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King and Aunjanue Ellis have also all given exquisite performances that deserve to be widely seen and venerated.
Allow me to briefly digress. I believe the victim was raped, just like I believe there is a pervasive culture of acquiescence that reprimands female victims and regularizes male sexual violence. Further, I'm appalled by Parker and Celestine's actions, as well as Parker's decision to work with a person who was once convicted of rape. There are plenty of talented black and brown writers in Hollywood looking for substantive work. And while I'm a victim of rape--there are sundry troubling similarities between my case and that of the deceased victim's--I'm also a journalist trying to employ a measure of objectivity.
Rape victims--startling, every two minutes another American is sexually assaulted--often relive nightmares that chip away at their core. To have people believe that rape didn't happen upon you, but that you happened upon rape, taxes the soul. And the American tradition of victimizing the victim, particularly in instances of sexual assault, is maddening, given that only 2% of reports are actually false. Perhaps that's why 90% of rapes go unreported. I do not know what punishment should be levied when one has escaped criminal prosecution and/or conviction, but clearly exhibited sickening behavior.
Filmgoers have faced similar dilemmas. Woody Allen, who was investigated for allegedly molesting his adopted daughter, continues to create quality films while working with Hollywood's elite. As does French director Roman Polanski, who pled guilty to statutory rape. I'm not condoning either's actions, but how long should Parker's past shape his present and future? Already the Toronto Film Festival and the American Film Institute have canceled screenings of The Birth of Nation.
Audiences are well aware of the rise of anti-intellectualism in America and how it has resulted in faux "art" in the form of unintelligent books, movies, music, and television programming. No one knows this more than African Americans who are often depicted as housekeepers, drug lords, criminals, and other characters with malleable morals. The Birth of a Nation, like 12 Years a Slave, deserves a rightful place in the cannon of great American films for gorgeously articulating the American experience. We need this film to educate audiences more than we need to punish Parker. The stakes are simply too high.