Before Nate Parker’s film “The Birth of a Nation” hits theaters in October, there is something we must get straight. Rape and sexual violence are epidemics we must address now. Yet boycotting an important film about Nat Turner will not push that debate forward, but it will help to silence the issues of our country’s legacy of systemic racism and #BlackLivesMatter that the film dares to broach.
The film — which Fox Searchlight bought for $17 million at the Sundance Film festival — depicts the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion and was being promoted as an Oscar contender. And then came the controversy about Parker’s past, specifically a 2001 rape trial arising from a 1999 incident as a college student at Penn State, for which he was acquitted. The film’s co-writer, Lean Celestin, was found guilty initially, and the conviction was overturned.
Meanwhile, news that the woman who accused Parker committed suicide in 2012 surfaced in recent weeks. The compelling accounts of her struggle with trauma in the wake of the incident suggest the legal system failed this woman. After filing complaints with both the police and Penn State alleging she was raped by Parker and Celestin, she filed a Title IX sex discrimination lawsuit charging the school with failing to properly respond to her harassment. “Our client took the actions she did with the goal of protecting other women from sexual assault and harassment, and to do what she could to ensure justice for rape survivors,” said the Women’s Law Project, which represented the woman, in a statement. “These objectives have not been achieved in either (the criminal justice or the campus) system, as has been well-documented.”
Surely in a nation where one out of every six women will survive an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime, sexual violence is not an issue we can ignore or fail to address.
With that backdrop, the American Film Institute cancelled a Friday screening of “Birth,” and a press conference in Toronto was cancelled. Questions are being raised about the film’s viability in light of the accusations against him, and some Oscar voters are proclaiming they cannot separate the man from his work and cannot watch his film, much less vote for it.
Parker, who wrote on Facebook that “As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.” He also said, “I have changed so much since nineteen. I’ve grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community – and will continue to do this to the best of my ability.”
Parker, who said “no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation,” also expressed disappointment in the black community’s response to his rape case. To be sure, Parker must be disappointed in himself and must deal with his role in this. We must not give him a pass because he is black, and it is time the black community take a stand and address its complicity. Just because Nate Parker is black, that doesn’t mean we should all rush to his defense.
Studies have shown that anywhere from 1 in 4 black girls to sixty percent of black girls have experienced sexual abuse before reaching the age of 18. And for every black woman who reports a rape, at least 15 of them do not, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics.
So can we separate the artist from his work? The film industry has asked that question with Roman Polansky and Woody Allen. And the answer to that question might not even be the issue. The question is: who is bigger, Nate Parker or Nat Turner?
The story of Nat Turner comes to the big screen at a time when the black community complains, and rightly so, about the shortage of films that tell our story. While some would boycott this film because of Parker’s past, others would rather have this movie go away so we don’t deal with the underlying matters of Black Lives Matter and racism that “Birth” broaches, and in a necessary way.
Simply put, this film could be historic in that it gets to the heart of what this country always was about: That “peculiar institution” of slavery, white fear and paranoia, and keeping the slaves in line so they don’t take over the plantation. The public schools do not teach this country’s history, opting for American exceptionalism rather than the exceptionally shameful legacy of racial oppression and economic and sexual exploitation. And African-Americans always pay the price of white folks’ ignorance over issues they’d rather not confront. Talk of black revolution — not to mention an armed slave insurrection in the name of Jesus Christ — is bound to make people uneasy. Meanwhile, negative media images of black people have cost black people their rights and their lives. The original “Birth of a Nation” — D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film — depicted the emancipated slaves as irredeemable, inept and violent rapists, and black power as a nightmare. It sparked race riots and helped reorganize the Ku Klux Klan. And the film is still taught in film schools. Will Nate Parker’s film have an opportunity to be as groundbreaking, this time in a positive light by shifting the national talk about race?Will we ever know?
Given last year’s pathetic absence of color at the Oscars, one must question whether the old-white-male-dominated Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences would have endorsed a film where there are no white heroes saving the day or saving helpless Negroes, even before the current Parker controversy. True, “12 Years A Slave” won three Oscars in 2014, but those are few and far between. We should just make sure that in shutting down “Birth,” we are not enabling those who care little about Nate Parker and don’t want you to know what Nat Turner did.
Getting rid of the film tries to make Nat Turner disappear, and that doesn’t help address racism or sexual violence.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove