I’ve been looking forward to the movie “The Birth of a Nation” since I first heard about it in January. The story of a black Virginian, Nat Turner, who led a massive slave uprising in 1831 will finally be released in theatres October 7. The movie has the chance to redefine a crucial moment in film and pop culture history. At the same time, it is marred with controversy leaving many, myself included, with the decision of whether or not to even see it.
Critics praised the movie when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival. Not only did it win the top prize, but it was also sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, a record-breaking Sundance deal. But since August a different narrative emerged.
“The Birth of a Nation” has been scrutinised because of previous rape allegations against the film’s director and star, Nate Parker, and a sexual assault conviction that was later overturned against the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin. Though the allegations aren’t new, Parker and Searchlight have been on the defence in the months leading up to the film’s release.
Now that the movie’s almost here, there’s one fundamental question I’m stuck asking myself — whether or not it’s possible, or acceptable, to separate a work of art from the artists who make it.
Allegations of Sexual Assault
Parker has been in Hollywood for a while. Not only did he write “The Birth of a Nation,” but he also makes his directorial debut in the film. Parker penned the film with his friend Jean Celestin. Both men were charged in 2001 for sexually assaulting the same woman back in 1999 when they attended Penn State.
Parker and a then 18-year-old woman, who requested to remain anonymous in the trial, went out on a date. She claimed to have blacked out, only to wake up to Parker and later Celestin performing unwanted sexual acts with her. Both men maintain that the woman was not unconscious and was consenting. Parker was found not guilty of sexual assault, while Celestin was initially convicted of assaulting the woman. Celestin’s conviction was overturned when he appealed the lower court’s decision in 2005. In August, news broke that the woman at the center of the case died by suicide in 2012.
Complicating matters further, the film depicts a brutal rape, which some have called exploitative. It may be difficult to watch this scene knowing the director’s own history with sexual assault.
A Film with Huge Potential
Before I heard about the filmmaker’s dark past,”The Birth of Nation” was the movie I was most excited to see this year. I was hooked from the moment I heard its title.
There’s another famous film called “The Birth of a Nation.” It’s a silent, black-and-white film that came out in 1915. I like to watch classic movies, but this is one I’ve actively avoided, and for good reason. The movie, set during the American Civil War and Reconstruction era, is based on the novel and play called “The Clansmen.” In it, people of colour are depicted as animistic and sexually aggressive. The NAACP unsuccessfully tried to get the movie banned. In addition to the misrepresentation of black men, the Ku Klux Klan, whose members are the embodiment of racial hatred, are characterised as heroes in the film.
Despite such deplorable content, 1915’s “The Birth of a Nation” has taken a prominent place in film history for the groundbreaking way it used the film medium to tell a story. It is a milestone in the evolution of movie making.
2016’s “The Birth of a Nation” could change the way we think about the 1915 film. I imagine it would be similar to the transformation of the name Edmund Pettus in American history. Pettus was a notorious segregationist and the highest-ranking member of the Alabama Ku Klux Klan at one point. He even had a bridge named after him in the state.
Today, when we hear his name another image comes to mind. We think of the 600 protesters who planned a march across Alabama for the protection of their right to vote. The peaceful marchers were met by police in gas masks when they crossed the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma. Officers threw teargas and marchers were beaten with bats on a day that came to be known as Bloody Sunday. 50 years after that violent clash, the nation’s first black president visited that bridge to remember it as a place where Americans fought for freedom. That bridge and the name Edmund Pettus have been fundamentally redefined.
So with this new “The Birth of a Nation,” I began to wonder if the same kind of thing could happen. I hoped the racist images that the first film conjured would be replaced or at least joined by the image of a slave fighting for his freedom. For me, as a black American film lover, that would be a powerful shift.
Should personal history impact the film?
One of Parker’s costars in the film, Gabrielle Union, is a rape survivor. In September, Union wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times after news resurfaced about Parker’s assault allegations. Union wrote that as important as this new movie is, she couldn’t take the allegations of rape lightly. She said learning about the allegations left her, “in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”
To some degree, Union’s words describe how I feel, along with so many others who are debating whether to support the film, and by default, the filmmakers. Is it ok to support artists with such sordid histories?
My opinion is that it is possible separate a work of art from the artist, and a film from its filmmakers. Many in the black community had a difficult time coming to terms with the mounting assault accusations against Bill Cosby because “The Cosby Show” helped change the image of the black family in American media landscape. My colleague grew up reading Roald Dahl’s books, only to later learn that Dahl would have hated him because he is Jewish. Are the achievements of “The Cosby Show” or the influence of Dahl automatically erased because we know of their flaws?
I don’t think life is as simple as good versus bad. Though it may seem paradoxical, an artist can create good, and even important work, while being incredibly problematic.
So I will go see “The Birth of Nation” because I think the story of Nat Turner is one worth sharing. But I can understand if you choose not see the movie. At the end of the day, each person decides where to draw the line. For some, an artist’s past will understandably prevent them from seeing a film. Friday, a group of sexual assault victims plan to protest the “The Birth of a Nation” in Hollywood when the film is released.
No artist is perfect and some are deeply flawed. At this point in my life, I’ve learned being disappointed by my heroes is more the rule than the exception. Despite their controversies, I still enjoy Shakespeare’s plays, Woody Allen’s movies, and even some of R. Kelly’s songs. I’ll see if 2016’s “The Birth of a Nation” lives up to all the hype.
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