The Star Late Edition - - TONIGHT -

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.

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