ES, I know: 15 years ago, Birth of a Nation star and film-maker Nate Parker was acquitted on charges of rape and sexual assault. But though a jury concluded that he wasn’t guilty of a crime, I can’t help believe that he used a woman who he knew was vulnerable.
He’s repugnant. But that doesn’t mean I won’t go see his movie.
I get where the writer Roxanne Gay is coming from when she said in the New York Times that she “cannot separate the art and the artist”, but I can. I – we – do it all the time, and unless we’re going to start boycotting every tainted artist’s work, we’re hypocrites. I may think Parker, the person, is a lowlife, but he has produced a work of art that I’m perfectly content to buy a ticket for, take in and assess on its own merits. It was originally hailed as “reflective”, “vigorous” and “vital”. Now it’s being ripped as “overdone” and a historically inaccurate “epic fail”. I say, let’s see. It will either succeed or fail on its own merit, or lack thereof, but that shouldn’t have anything to do with Parker’s sordid past.
We consume and experience films (and music, and, for that matter, sport) for many reasons. To be enlightened, to be entertained, to experience beauty and grapple with ugliness. As human beings, we need this, emotionally and intellectually. And while the artists who offer this to us are linked to their work – it’s their work, after all – they aren’t the work themselves. And their pasts, however repellent they are, don’t negate the value in what they create.
The controversy over Birth of a Nation isn’t unique. Many artists, some who’ve inspired millions, have exhibited loathsome behaviour in their private lives. In recent years, Woody Allen has become a pariah over allegations that he sexually abused Mia Farrow’s daughter, Dylan. But no one questions the import of his oeuvre, and his films still open to much fanfare. Braveheart – Parker’s acknowledged favourite film, to which Birth of a Nation has drawn comparisons – won the Oscar for Best Picture. But Mel Gibson, its star and director, who informally advised Parker on his project, is known now for his racist and misogynist rants.
I’m currently enjoying the biography of author Patricia Highsmith, a noted anti-Semite, and I simply can’t be sure a more detestable person ever existed. But I can’t deny Highsmith wrote fabulous psychological thrillers.
When I’m delighting my niece with a reading of Dr Seuss’s classic, The Cat in the Hat, I confess that his racist depictions of African Americans and Japanese Americans couldn’t be further from my mind.
There are exceptions. I used to see nothing wrong with R Kelly’s Bump ‘N Grind, but now I definitely do, because I can’t listen to it without feeling like he’s alluding to his widely reported sexual liaisons with underage girls.
But even my exceptions are arbitrary. Rick James went to prison for tying a woman to a chair and burning her with a crack pipe. But if Super Freak comes on at a party, I’m on the dance floor. And in some cases, I can’t adequately explain how I ultimately drew the line between moral judgment and aesthetic merit.
Neither can society. Two years after former Baltimore Ravens running back Ray Rice was captured on video hitting his wife, no NFL team will sign him. Yet Jim Brown remains an icon, enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame and held up for his activism. This, even though he’s admitted to slapping women around, including being accused and charged, but not convicted, with throwing one woman off the balcony of his home.
We don’t really talk about John Lennon’s acknowledgement that he hit women. And very few of us took the opportunity to revisit Dr Dre’s track record when Straight Outta Compton was released last year.
I can best explain my decision to see Birth of a Nation the way Jewish conductor Daniel Barenboim explains his choice to perform the work of anti-Semite German composer, Wilhelm Richard Wagner, in Israel, where it is unofficially banned. “Well, I think it’s obvious,” he says, “that Wagner’s antiSemitic views and writings are monstrous ... Wagner, the person, is absolutely appalling, despicable and, in a way, very difficult to put together with the music he wrote, which so often has exactly the opposite kind of feelings. It is noble, generous, et cetera.” He notes that there’s no character in Wagner’s operas equivalent to Shylock, but William Shakespeare isn’t held at arm’s-length in the same way.
Parker isn’t Wagner, of course, and if the growing chorus of sceptical reviews is a guide, I doubt Birth of a Nation will be Die Walküre. But I want to evaluate and maybe even enjoy it for myself.
The Washington Post’s Alyssa Rosenberg wrote in August that when a movie becomes a cause célèbre – as this one did before Parker’s past surfaced – it became “difficult to discuss as a movie”. That remains true now that conversation about its artistic value has been swamped by controversy, even though we compartmentalise our reactions to the work of everyone from Shakespeare to Seuss without the same kind of tension.
No question, we should have a robust discussion about Parker’s past. We have to in a culture that still has not come to a consensus on what constitutes consent, and what doesn’t. But boycotting this movie feels like a gesture that allows us to feel selfrighteous but doesn’t accomplish much else. It might be a cinematic tour-de-force, or it might be pulp fiction. But there’s only one way to find out and either way, I won’t judge it based on my feelings about Parker. –
Young is an attorney and an editor at rollingout.com. See page 4 for film review.
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation.