January 27, 2017
Birth of a Nation: A Closer Look
by Fiona Lawson
October 27, 2016
After a year of heated debate about diversity and representation in Hollywood, Nate Parker seemed like he might be the beacon of change that we were all waiting for. Earlier in 2016, Parker was gearing up to release The Birth of a Nation, his Nat Turner biopic and directorial debut, which he also wrote, produced, and starred in. After a historic bidding war at Sundance, it seemed like a good omen for black filmmakers looking to tell black stories. Not so fast. In August, Deadline and Variety ran articles about Parker that addressed what has been politely referred to as “an incident” from Parker’s past. In 1999, Parker and his longtime friend and Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin raped a Penn State classmate. Suddenly, Parker’s “movement” was tainted, and viewers find themselves in a sort of moral grey space- watch the movie and support a rapist or ignore the movie and its anti-racist message?
Granted, there is an argument to be made for separating the art from the artist, especially in this case, where the message of the work in question is undeniably culturally important. But the reality is while Parker’s work is important, so are his actions. Parker needs to be held accountable in the public discourse surrounding his film, and going forward, it is high time we hold filmmakers responsible for their actions and disregard the moral absolutism that has plagued our perceptions of artists, preventing us from accepting that a not so great human being can create a valuable and important work of art.
The Birth of a Nation is undeniably a movie that tells an important story. It offers a new take on the “slave movie” subgenre by focusing on Turner, the enslaved Baptist preacher who led a slave insurrection in 1831 Virginia. Parker’s choice to portray slaves in the context of resistance rather than servitude gained media attention even before the film’s premiere at Sundance 2016. This depiction is reflective of a larger cultural shift, occurring simultaneously as the Black Lives Matter movement sweeps across the United States and Colin Kaepernick takes a knee during the national anthem. This movie was once poised to become a major conversation piece in a larger dialogue about race and resistance in America.
So just straight up ignoring the movie doesn’t feel like the best, or even the morally correct, response to Parker and Celestin’s unsavory past.
Some argue, however, that avoiding the film is exactly what’s on the mainstream media’s agenda. For anti-racism activists, the commercial and critical success of The Birth of a Nation would be a major boon, especially in light of last year’s Academy Awards. 2015 saw zero people of color nominated in any of the acting categories, and a single black nominee (who, for the record, was The Weeknd for 50 Shades of Grey), which in turn spawned the #OscarsSoWhite movement.
The Birth of a Nation generated a solid buzz at Sundance, including the bidding war for distribution rights that lasted late into the night and ended with 20th Century Fox’s Oscar-baiting art house division snatching the movie up for a staggering $17.5 million. Once, Parker could have reasonably expected nominations for writing, directing, acting, and Best Picture, a massive cultural victory for a black artist telling an oft forgotten story from African American history.
The rape revelation that came shortly after certainly put a damper on the excitement for the film’s release, and may have genuinely dashed Parker’s Oscar dreams. The Reverend Al Sharpton, who was an outspoken supporter of #OscarsSoWhite, has jumped to Parker’s defense. His promotion of Parker, however, focuses less on the rape, which he refers to only vaguely as an unjustified wrong-doing on Parker’s part, and more on the Academy, which he criticizes for continuing to award white people who face similar accusations. Meanwhile, some Academy voters have begun talking to the media about their reservations around potentially voting for Parker.
“All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?” Rev. Sharpton asks in an interview with Jamal Watson at The Root.
Fellow Root columnist Demetria Lucas D’Oyley has the best response I’ve seen to this inevitable comparison between Parker and white filmmakers who’ve committed sexual assault without any career repercussions. “White people are not the gold standard. I repeat: white people are not the gold standard,” she quips in her article 7 Arguments I Wish People Would Stop Using to Defend Their Favorite Celebrities.
Arguing that there is no racial element to the narrative developing around Nate Parker would be a crude take on the issue. When Woody Allen gets nominated every few years, there are no reports of Academy members telling journalists that they have moral qualms about voting for his movie, although his stories are inevitably about topics a lot less relevant and crucial to the American identity as slavery. When Roman Polanksi won Best Director for The Piano to a standing ovation, Harrison Ford had to accept the award on his behalf, since Polanski’s 1977 rape of a 13 year old girl prevented him from re-entering the United States without risking arrest.
Now, Academy voters are saying they don’t even want to watch The Birth of a Nation because of Parker’s past actions.
Instead of following Rev. Sharpton’s suggestion, though, and raising Nate Parker up to the level of men like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, we should go the other way. We need to stop glorifying and celebrating people who have committed acts as unacceptable as rape or child molestation.
Is it fair that Nate Parker and Jean Celestin may not get their Oscar nominations for The Birth of a Nation, when white filmmakers prior to this have continued to enjoy critical praise and commercial success? No, you know what, maybe it is not fair.
But you know what else isn’t fair? On average, 364,600 American women and men are raped every year. 23% of undergraduate women get raped during their college careers. 30% of rape survivors experience PTSD, and 13% attempt suicide.
In 2012, the woman that Parker and Celestin raped killed herself.
Hollywood, of course, has a storied history of writing off accusations of sexual abuse and assault against its best and brightest. From Clark Gable to Roman Polanski to Woody Allen, plenty of iconic Hollywood figures have committed some form of sexual assault and continued to rake in the Oscars, glowing reviews, and fan support, even after word gets out about what they’ve done. Sure, one can argue about separating the art from the artist, but that doesn’t make listening to Diane Keaton describe Woody Allen as a champion of women as she collects his Cecil B. DeMille Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2014 Golden Globes any less nauseating. Granted, it’s a lot easier to glibly dismiss the arguments in favor of supporting a particular person’s work when they’re someone like Woody Allen, whose films have little social value beyond self-aggrandizement.
The Parker case is infinitely more challenging.
It’s not necessarily fair that right now is the time to draw the line in the sand and stop heaping unqualified praise on rapists and abusers because they’ve created a great work of art, right as Parker is releasing his magnum opus. But it’s also not fair that Parker and Celestin are making money and advancing their careers off of The Birth of a Nation, which features multiple violent and fictional rapes, when the woman that they raped has been dead for four years.
We need to be careful when we’re praising a public figure, particularly when we’re glorifying a specific individual because they have something important to say. Just because someone has a crucial message, doesn’t mean that they’re a good person, or even a person worth celebrating. That also doesn’t necessarily mean their point isn’t worth taking. Nat Turner’s story is important, especially today. People should see The Birth of a Nation. If it is appropriate to do so, the Academy should nominate it for Best Picture. But we need to think twice before heralding Nate Parker as the voice of a movement. His actions reveal some very deep, very harmful flaws that should give audiences and Academy voters pause when considering him as an individual. Just because the art is great or important does not mean the artist is worth celebrating.
Fiona Lawson is a junior with a Philosophy, Politics, and Law major and a double minor in Cinematic Arts and Forensics & Criminality. She is a Year 2 VOICE member.