ART ANSWERS TO US: NATE PARKER’S ‘BIRTH OF A NATION’ AND THE IMPOSSIBLE TASK OF OBJECTIVITY

When the headlines about Nate Parker’s rape charges started swirling on the entertainment news websites I frequent, I did not click on them. It was partially a matter of principal, but also the idea that if I engaged with that information I would have to process it, and I actively did not want to. I have always tried to separate the object of art from the character of the artist. I don’t believe that by going to a theater and paying for a ticket you’re condoning the actions or ideologies of the persons who made that film. If I excised from my life the films that were made in part by a deeply maladjusted person, my shelves would be bare. But I keep the company of film literate and compassionate people and a friend of mine was really struggling with whether or not he should see BIRTH OF A NATION. We had been anticipating it since it made a huge impression at Sundance in January of 2015, winning both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize and then being purchased by Fox Searchlight for a whopping $17.5 million dollars. It is the story of Nat Turner, a slave who led a led an uprising of slaves and free-blacks on August 21, 1831. The potential cultural relevance of this film, especially in the wake of #OscarsSoWhite, is inescapable and exciting. This was a film not to be ignored. But now, with Nate Parker’s sordid past come to light, along with that of his co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin, everything got murky. Nate Parker – writer, director, star of BIRTH OF A NATION – along with Celestin were accused of a rape in 1999 on the campus of Pennsylvania State University that may have resulted in victim’s suicide. After laying this out for me, my friend asked me directly how this made me feel as a film fan and a woman and all I could sputter was “how dare he get to make a film.”

At first, I felt suspicious of why these allegations were coming out now. Was this some sort of attempt by a malicious party to undermine this potentially groundbreaking film in order to maintain the white men’s club at the Academy for one more, measly year? It turns out that Fox Searchlight and Parker himself decided to come out with this information in an attempt to get in front of the media frenzy that would result from this information being dredged up by some other party under the scrutiny that is the inevitable with an Oscar nomination. Parker was scheduled to receive the Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute on August 11th, so on the 4th he had a reporter from Deadline to his home to address what happened at Penn State. The accusation made by the victim was as commonplace as it was nightmarish. After a night of drinking, she returned to Parker’s apartment with Celestin and a third man, Tamerlane Kangas. She claims to have passed out and as she waxed in an out of consciousness, she woke to both Parker and Celestin inflicting sexual acts on her momentarily conscious body. Both men maintained that the threesome was consensual and Parker was found not guilty on all charges. Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, but the decision was later overturned.

From the interview, it seemed like Parker wanted to put the whole mess behind him, “I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.” Parker knew that the victim had attempted suicide twice soon after the incident, but he did not know she had committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 30 from an overdose of sleeping pills. No one can prove that her death was the direct result of the trauma of the 1999 incident, but her death certificate said that she suffered PTSD from sexual abuse. Parker’s acknowledgement of the incident was cursory but not dismissive, he would address it but not dwell on it, “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope. What do I do? When you have a certain level of success, when things start to work, things go under the microscope and become bigger and bigger things.” He wants to focus on BIRTH OF A NATION, “When I made this film, I said, ‘If you’ve got injustice, this is your film. And I’m coming.’ That is the legacy I want to leave behind. I can’t change anything. You move forward, and every moment you’re alive, you’re living in the moment. I continue to fight for what’s important to me and I will, no matter how deeply I go under this microscope, no matter how bright the spotlight, I will fight against injustice in everything I do.”

The scant details from the article along with Parker’s refrain that he had been cleared of all charges were ultimately disquieting for me. I found myself doing exactly what I didn’t want to do, plummeting down a click-hole of trying to piece together in my mind what happened, what this says about Nate Parker as a person, and having to decide if this will influence me as a film goer and a feminist. I found a detailed article from Slate that laid out the timeline of events from the incident through the trials, how it was handled on the Penn State campus, how the victim was treated by Parker, Celestin, their friends, the entire student body, and it all added up to tragedy, heartbreak, and loss. The night in question was August 21, 1999. The victim was 18. She reported sexual abuse to Penn State in September, and then to the police in October. Both Parker and Celestin were accused of rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault and deviant assault. Parker was found not guilty on all charges but the closing arguments made by his defense attorney, Joseph Deveka, were abysmal. He called her memories of her assault as “convenient,” he used that she went to work and then partied again the next day as evidence against her, and that she had consented to have sex with him two nights earlier. Celestin’s defense, which was later found negligent, held in dispute how much the victim really had to drink and focused on how the victim illegally taped conversations to build a case against him, which the D.A. decided not to prosecute. Penn State initially just suspended them from the wrestling team and then expelled Celestin after he was sentenced.

The incident on August 21st, 1999, came down to their word against hers and the jury, the judge, and the university chose theirs. Parker transferred to the University of Oklahoma where he graduated in 2003 an All-American wrestler and moved to California to become a filmmaker. In 2005, Celestin’s guilty verdict was overturned for a retrial, but the witnesses were no longer available and the victim did not have it in her to testify again. Her first suicide attempt was November 17th, 1999, her second in January of the next year. She eventually dropped out of school and killed herself twelve years later. The scales of justice were tipped. There is a systematic tilt that has cost too many women their esteem, their dignity, and their lives. In this system women are taught are ways of dressing, behaving, and expressing themselves that make women partially responsible for the violent crimes that happen to their person. By drinking at a party, by being alone in a car, dorm, or apartment with a man they are inviting trauma, not just from strangers, but from their date, friend, or boyfriend. Male predators are taught that women are fickle, emotional and no one takes them seriously. When college-aged men are accused of sexual abuse, they get special consideration for their developmental “lack of self control” and partial credit for having remorse. They are taught that their future is too valuable to throw away for a youthful indiscretion.

The idea that Nate Parker was a benefactor of this woefully broken system is gut wrenching, but the travesty is extended further when you discover that he may have also been a maintainer of this status quo. The victim reported that Parker was lurking around her dorm, and that he and Celestin would follow her around campus with a group of friends to taunt her with sexual, degrading comments. They hired a private investigator to prepare their defense that used her picture to question the student body making her infamous and the harassment escalated to the point that she could no longer show her face on campus. After the criminal trial, two lawsuits against Penn State were made in the victim’s behalf. The first was in 2002 because of the lack of recourse after the criminal charges were made, and the second was made by the Women’s Law Project for their Penn’s inaction when it came to the level of harassment the victim endured. According to RAINN, only 40% percent of rape and sexual assaults are reported. Victims of rape are intimidated out of justice because by reporting they are subjected to humiliation and ostracization, which may very well turn out to be for naught. Women are strong. Many woman tormented by sexual abuse still manage to hold their heads high as mothers, as mentors, as beacons of fortitude and hope, but no one can deny that the odds are stacked against them.

With all of the ‘alleges’ and ‘claims’ that make this situation unnavigable, there is one detail that is indisputable and that is that this incident took place seventeen years ago. The resurfacing and rehashing of these allegations have clearly stirred up a lot of hurt, but I do believe in redemption. After finding out that the victim from Penn State had committed suicide, Parker did express remorse for the man he was in 1999 and how he treated women. At a screening of BIRTH OF A NATION, he addressed the dissonance in himself of how he engages with racial injustice versus male chauvinism, “I’m walking around daring someone to say something or do something that I define is racist or holding us back, but never really thinking about male culture and the destructive effect it’s having on our community.” He acknowledged the man he was in 1999, “My manhood was defined by how many women I could be with. I was a dog. I was wrong. I hurt a lot of women. And that was normal for me, in respect to how I treated them emotionally.” Parker’s objectification of women was not born in a vacuum. He’s a product of culture just like anyone else, a culture where ‘yes’ meant ‘yes,’ and ‘no’ meant ‘no,’ but anything in between was also ‘yes,’ “If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? … It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent.” That does not justify his actions or excuse them, but it does point to a potentiality for change. Things would be different if he was found guilty in 1999 and suffered a consequence that befit his conviction and from that point put his life back together, but that just isn’t what happened. It seems he should pay, but who does he owe? He owes the victim, but she is gone. He would owe her family, but in their infinite grace, they found it in their hearts to forgive him. So it comes down to us; do we make him pay now by ending his career by not seeing his movie? Maybe that isn’t what it’s about at all.

Gabrielle Union, who plays a rape victim in BIRTH OF A NATION, wrote a moving and insightful op-ed for the LA Times about her period of discernment following her discovery of Parker’s past. She was raped at gunpoint twenty-four years ago, and she expressed deep empathy for all women who are suffering PTSD as a result of sexual violence. She has turned down other roles in which the characters would be raped, but saw in BIRTH OF A NATION an opportunity for an open and frank discussion, “I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.” She is a mother who is proud of her sons, but sees in Parker’s story a painful reminder to teach her them about consent, “My husband and I stress the importance of their having to walk an even straighter line than their white counterparts. A lesson that is heartbreaking and infuriating, but mandatory in the world we live in. We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else.” This is a message that should be imparted on every young man: that only ‘yes’ means ‘yes’ ever. Ever. Ever. Ever. Full stop. The experience, consideration, and artfulness that Union put into BIRTH OF A NATION deserves to be seen, as well as the work of the other actors and crew. So many hands go into crafting a film, and yet with Parker being the director, writer, and star, is inextricable from the fabric of this work.

Nate Parker’s conviction, rightfully or no, may ultimately be made at the box office for BIRTH OF A NATION. As part of the $17.5 million dollar price tag, Fox Searchlight agreed to tour Nate Parker with the film as a roadshow, and to show the film on 1,500 screens, a large number for an art house film. The roadshow is going forward as planned with Nate Parker scheduled to speak on the social issues raised in the film, but with his past being played out in the court of public opinion, odds are there are many people who don’t want to hear what he has to say. The American Film Institute cancelled their screening and Q&A with Parker on August 24. Academy of Motion Picture Arts President Cheryl Boone Isaacs insists BIRTH OF A NATION is a film “people need to see,” but the Academy voters seem torn. My friend, at the time of our conversation, had decided he would not see the film. Not as a way for Parker to pay for the man he was, but as a way to honor the victim and all victims of sexual assault.

I’m still going to see BIRTH OF A NATION. I think the conversation about the incident at Penn State is one worth having. The culture is clearly starved for it, or it wouldn’t be churning through the media and through my mind so relentlessly. But I think the issues that are going to be raised by BIRTH OF A NATION are worthwhile as well-the legacy of black slavery, racial tension, and, yes, the continued objectification and abuse of women. The film’s very existence entitles me to see it. It doesn’t seem fair that Nate Parker got to make a film, but it is out there, no longer the brainchild of Parker and Celestin, but the product of many. Once a piece of art is out there in the world, it does not belong to the artist anymore. The art answers to us. The artist only answers to himself.