We Need To Talk About Nate

We Need To Talk About Nate

The world is a complicated place. We move around one another on a map borne out of complex histories and conflicting narratives. Every moment in time is connected to every other moment in time in too many ways to properly summarize. Nothing I am going to say here will make things simpler, but hopefully I can do justice to the subject. And sadly, this is not a subject we haven't visited before. All I know for sure is that we do ourselves a disservice if we don't continue to talk about serious issues like this. 

Nate Parker and his forthcoming film The Birth of A Nation were always going to be a big story in the coming months. Purchased out of Sundance for $17.5M by Fox Searchlight, it was heralded as a guarantee there would not be a third year of #OscarsSoWhite. It was as safe a bet as any for several Oscar nominations. But now, the conversation has taken a turn as details of a sexual assault charge from his college years have emerged. 

For the most complete summary of the facts, The Daily Beast may be the best source, but I will lay out the gist. In 1999, while he was an undergraduate at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin (co-writer of The Birth of A Nation) were charged with rape. The pair admitted to having sex with the young woman, but alleged that it was consensual. The victim and witnesses said that she was in varying states of unconsciousness, which would make consent impossible. 

 Jean Celestin (L); College Wrestling Coach (C); Nat Parker (R)

Jean Celestin (L); College Wrestling Coach (C); Nat Parker (R)

Parker was acquitted (likely because of previous consensual sex he had with the victim), while Celestin was convicted. Celestin's conviction was overturned for ineffective assistance of counsel four years later and he was never retried. Allegations that Parker harassed the victim followed, which eventually led to her dropping out of school.

Parker went on to star in several films, including Beyond The LightsRed TailsThe Great Debaters and The Secret Life Of BeesThe Birth of A Nation, which is his directorial debut, is supposed to represent his ascendancy to superstardom. 

Parker and Celestin's victim committed suicide in 2012. 

That fact does not demand condemnation on its own, but it does make Nate Parker's recent comments seem even more self-centered. In an interview with Variety, Parker said, "Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life." He stated further, "It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That's that." The aggressive use of passive voice aside, what a horrifying stance to take. He seemingly takes no ownership of his, at the very least, questionable actions and the results that followed. That these questionable actions would almost certainly be labeled rape today in front of a competent jury means the stakes are even higher. We have a collective moral obligation to make sure we say the right thing in response. 

Gabrielle Union, who plays a minor, but pivotal role in the film, has spoken openly about her own experience with sexual assault when she was 19 years-old. In the film, her character is raped by a white slavemaster, which while vaguely historically accurate, was not a part of any of Nat Turner's writings. This moment in the film is apparently used as a driving force behind the eventual rebellion, which seems odd to me. I am made wholly uncomfortable by the idea that this particular writer/director combination would be guiding this particular actress through this particular scene. It is unclear how much Union knew about Parker's past when signing on to the project and she has not spoken about the subject in this latest uproar.

Though there is a great deal pushing me away from this film, it just isn't so simple. Parker's film, which has received generally (but not overwhelmingly) positive reviews, tells a rare story in American cinema. Not only is it a movie about slavery, but it is one in which the slaves have agency and are not simply acquiescing to their plight or their salvation at the hands of a white savior. Given our current racial climate, revisiting these narratives couldn't come at a better time. 

It also pains me not to support this film because of some of the other people involved. The aforementioned Gabrielle Union (Bring It On; Being Mary Jane) has had a long and successful career. This sort of prestige picture represents a capstone on her resumé. Likewise, veteran actor Jackie Earle Haley (Oscar-nominated for Little Children) has always done solid work and deserves to get even more. On the other end of the spectrum are stars like Aja-Naomi King and Armie Hammer, who can use this as a platform for more serious and demanding roles. It would truly be a shame if their work here is exemplary and simply gets lost in the cascading wreckage Parker and Celestin's actions have caused. 

 From Left To Right: Gabrielle Union, Aja-Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Nate Parker, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley

From Left To Right: Gabrielle Union, Aja-Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Nate Parker, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley

There is also the very real history of race being a part of rape narratives in this country. The victim in their case was a white woman. False accusations of black men raping white women dot the history of this country in a very painful way. If you were to think the allegations were false, it would be hard not to think of this fallout as a modern-day lynching of the type that killed, among many others, Elias Clayton, Elmer Jackson and Isaac McGhie in 1920 (Google them).

The facts, however, do not support this narrative. Instead, they suggest Parker likely partook in actions that are all too common on college campuses. Only recently have we started to focus attention and resources on this issue and properly align everyone's understandings of consent. We have a long way to go and it would not be a step forward to try to excuse Parker's actions in the name of art. 

Much like I would not sign up to support an effort backed by O.J. Simpson, I cannot bring myself to support Parker's work--regardless of how "important" it is. Just as "important" are the millions of survivors of sexual assault and the countless more that will come. How we respond in situations like this says something about us. Every dollar spent is tacit endorsement of something we all say is not a reflection of our better selves. If we mean that, we should live that. I object to the notion that we can't call wrong wrong. If you can get past it and 'separate the artist from the art,' feel free to do so. I am just not sure I am there yet when there is such a brazen unwillingness to show contrition. 

Oscars are extra. Wealth and fame are extra. Those are trappings we should (if we can) afford only to the best among us. Mr. Parker's freedom is prize enough considering the fate of his victim. 

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