Submitted by M. Baker
This week you may have learned the name Nate Parker.
This October, the first time director will see the release of his Nat Turner biopic, Birth of a Nation, which has already become a prominent Oscar contender after its overwhelmingly positive response at the Sundance Film Festival. Prior to this, Parker was an actor mostly known for appearing in roles such as the humble romantic lead in Beyond the Lights, and a more-than-disgruntled plane hijacker in Nonstop. In 1999, during his time as a student at Penn State, he and his roommate/co-writer, Jean Celestin, were charged with and put on trial for the rape of a fellow student. Parker was acquitted while Celestin served 6 months. The victim stated that she was unconscious during the assault, but the boys insisted she consented. The woman, who chose to protect her identity and is known only as Jane Doe, committed suicide by overdosing on pills in 2012. Her brother spoke with Variety on Monday, shedding light on Parker’s past, the effect it had on his sister, and his reservations towards the actor’s recent rise to fame.
I found this very troubling to read. It’s terrible what this woman went through. Considering how few rapes are actually reported, let alone go to trial, it’s immensely brave that she chose to face her accusers. It must have been devastating to see these boys get away with a mere slap on the wrist as she had to live with the emotional scars of the assault. After this information surfaced in the media I had to ask myself, “do I still support his movie?” Can you celebrate a movie whose driving creative force and voice is that of someone who denies any truth in a rape case? Parker posted a quasi-apology on Facebook saying he was “filled with profound sorrow” upon hearing the news of her death and says he does not “want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial,” yet he maintains his innocence. It’s an unsettling circumstance of a man who doesn’t own up to his actions, besides realizing he didn’t empathize enough at the time.
The initial reaction to my own inquiry was “well now I don’t have to see another slave movie.” Not that I had qualms with Birth of a Nation; I’m pretty excited that it’s re-purposing the name of one of the ugliest films in cinema’s history, but it will most likely continue the cycle of the only black led films nominated for Oscars are about slaves or - if you’re The Help - happy mammies. Especially after #OscarsSoWhite, it’s frustrating that the brief solution will be a biopic where most, if not all, the black characters will die. Don’t get me wrong, Nat Turner is an important historical figure who deserves some big screen reverence. I just want there to be a Birdman led by Idris Elba or a Spotlight featuring Kerry Washington to balance it out. But there is a flipside to this. No doubt Birth of a Nation is a film starring many talented black actors that generally don’t get the opportunity to play a prominent role in a prestige picture. More diversity onscreen will hopefully lead to more diverse casting in future films. 12 Years a Slave turned Lupita Nyong’o into an “It Girl” and Oscar winner, which is still impressive considering it was her first film role. If this film is successful both critically and financially and becomes an awards favorite, then it could prompt more studio backing and endorsement for directors of color.
But what to do about Parker? I’m obviously appalled by his actions. I’m disappointed that the only reason he regrets this mistake is because he’s a “man of faith” and now realizes that it would be dreadful if any of his daughters had to go through the same ordeal. No shit. Women don’t like getting raped. There are people in the world like you who could enact the same crime on your kids. This is a man who clearly grew up with a weak understanding of consent, as exemplified by his misconception of that night. It’s a blatant example of a man assuming that a highly intoxicated woman is capable of consent; an issue that has garnered awareness in recent years, especially on college campuses. Sadly, I recognize in good conscience that I cannot boycott his film because it would be hypocritical. I’ve seen many films made by white men who have committed equally heinous crimes. This year alone I saw both Woody Allen’s 30’s Hollywood nostalgia piece, Cafe Society, and Bryan Singer’s unrelenting X-Men Apocalypse (the latter I quite bemoan). I still go out and pay money for films made by people who “allegedly” have some really fucked up skeletons in their closet. I hate that in this instance I’m playing the race card, but when white directors with reported sexual assault allegations still screen their movies, then so should Parker. Maybe we have to let Birth of a Nation slide. Maybe we allow him the same privilege white men are so accustomed to. If you can shower Midnight in Paris with praise, then you can give Birth of a Nation a chance.
I unabashedly dislike Nate Parker as a person. He committed a crime, got off, and a woman’s life was destroyed. I grieve for his victim and so many other women who find themselves in similar circumstances. It is so important to speak up and seek justice in the case of rape, and college campuses need to continue cracking down on the issue. That being said, Nate Parker is a representation of something important to film culture. He is a black auteur whose film broke records amidst the bidding war for distribution rights (Fox Searchlight acquired it for $17.5 million). He is a symbol for studios to take more risks with non-white voices behind the camera. The success of Birth of a Nation could cause other unknown directors’ indie films to be bought at a festival or funded by a major studio. It’s a shame that the number of prominent black filmmakers is so low that I feel obligated to support this man’s feature in hopes that it will have a trickle-down effect. If we lived in a world where it was easy to name more black directors than Spike Lee, I wouldn’t have to support Birth of a Nation. The movie industry remains caucasian-centric, and the way to vote for change is with your dollars. I don’t want one bad apple to ruin the future of black filmmaking. Birth of a Nation happens to represent something greater than one man, much like Nat Turner himself. A single movie can ignite change in the industry. It’s always more important to focus on the future than the past, but I implore you not to let Parker forget about his past.
Megan Baker is the talented writer behind The Vintage. Check out her incisive movie reviews and retrospectives!