Last night I went to a screening of "The Birth of A Nation". I read this script quite a while ago and was on fire as I read the last page. When the film hit Sundance and it's writer/director/lead actor Nate Parker left the festival with all the coins, I was ecstatic and could not wait to see for myself. I thought what a fantastic and timely clap back to the 1915 movie that depicted "the anarchy sure to come if the niggas took over". However, as news began to circulate about Parker's collegiate rape charges, I was a bit less enthused.
My Nate Parker fanship began when I saw "The Great Debaters" back in 2007. He made an impression as I felt he stole the screen from Denzel a few times. I was less impressed with some of his next roles, but all was redeemed in his portrayal of "Kaz" in "Beyond The Lights". I always thought he was very attractive. I admit, when I found out he was married to a white woman, I thought he was a lot less cute. And since I'm being all-out honest, I generally do when I find an attractive brother whose decided not to wife a sister. I do believe love is love but it stings when they don't pick us but I digress. I say all that to say I thought myself to be a Nate Parker fan so I was shocked when news surfaced of a 2001 rape case that named Parker as the ringleader in a campus gangbang (like how did I not hear about that?).
I've learned my lesson about defending black men on the basis of race or their work instead of the facts. I have gotten it wrong and been on the wrong side of our cultural and innate misogny. In days past, I would initially question the woman's actions in a rape or sexual assault case. I wondered what she had done to cause it. I don't know why my instinct was to first question the victim - why she was out so late, why she wore that, where were her friends, why did she drink so much, why did she dance that way. These questions formed my first response to rape allegations especially against brothers. I feel like the "theys" are always against our men so I used to feel very defensive. Note: used to.
I've been played time and time again with that line of thought. In 1991, I initially thought Anita Hill was some woman they dug up to bring down the black man. (My naivete was dismissed after I saw Clarence Thomas speak on tv for the first time!) I didn't believe Mike Tyson raped the pageant contestant in 1992. In 1993, I doubted the woman who said Tupac raped her and felt he was imprisoned on a bogus charge. Fast forward to 1997. I sided with OJ instead of Nicole. In retrospect, I know that my opinions of Thomas and Simpson were fueled by media. My thoughts on Tupac and Tyson were different in that I came to those conclusions on my own. (Truth? I still don't think Tyson was guilty.) Most recently, I was shocked to find Darren Sharper had in fact raped all those women and when the Bill Cosby evidence started rolling in, I felt very caught off guard. I take full responsibility for my belief system and am working on self to figure out why that's my natural inclination to doubt the victim. I don't have to look that far as that seems to be another cultural norm to blame the victim but again I digress.
When news of Nate's rape hit the mainstream, I was distraught. I chose not to speak on it because with all that's happening in the world, I simply didn't have the energy to devote to this dude's actions. ("Why am I gonna stand by him when he not standing with the sistas anyway!") Again, in the spirit of of honesty, I made a lot of judgements: "That's what he gets for always fucking with those white girls." "She seemed like she had issues before this incident and well after." "Ain't no way Penn State would let a negro with no clout get off with raping a white girl if he had in fact done so." I didn't feel my opinion based on inferences would do any good so I let it be. Who wants to be another Facebook pundit? I also felt there was nothing more to say once I read Roxanne Gay's NY Times piece. Ms. Gay did pose a question I've been pondering all week: Can I truly separate artists from their work?
My truth is that I must. I am an artist and I'm equally a flawed individual. True enough I've never raped anyone (nor committed any other real "crime") but I do believe sin is sin (and that the media can make anything look devious). If I were to make it enormously big one day, I think a few of my past actions will come under scrutiny and I'm sure there's some folk that will be excited to bring up my less than stellar moments. I've lived in a pretty transparent manner, so those who know me well won't be surprised but every so often I wonder how the reaction would be if my darkest stuff came up.
Some of my favorite artists have historically been the most ridiculed (or were in their day). They said Zora was too uppity. Alice Walker was said to be antagonizing. Kanye West is bizarre. Jay Z and Beyonce are linked to capitalism and the "illuminati". Oprah has been accused of not being down for the cause. Woody Allen is a child molester. Michael Jackson was also accused of molestation. Whitney was a drug addict. I could list further but there's no need. It is hard to find a flawless artist and I think the reason is because flawless individuals do not exist. Personally, I think we judge artists too much. We expect a level of perfectionism from these people who are no better than the rest of us. True, they may speak, paint, sing or create better movies but they are not better people than us. Do they hold a higher responsibility than the rest of us? Are they obligated to do more? Should they use their platform for social change? I'm not sure of the answers to those but again, I do know they are NOT more than any one of us.
I brought all that to the screening. All the inner commentary, dissected thoughts and rising emotions were present front and center as I sat sipping my Icee getting ready for the film to roll. Tears fell and my spirit rose several times in a variety of ways (the joy at seeing the slaves find happiness in all that darkness, the sadness at the change on the plantation after the master died, and of course the anger. TONS OF ANGER.) As the end credits rolled, I felt horrible for Nate Parker's victim, her family and victims of sexual assault everywhere. I knew that the media and the "theys" were behind this campaign to spread the word of his misdeeds were using her life as a pawn. They don't want people to see this movie.
While history is available in books, documentaries and other formats, films can reach larger audiences and be quite persuasive and suggestive. As a writer, it's upsetting to say, but facts asserted in a "based on a true story" movie will be discussed way more than a non-fiction best seller. It's a sign of the times-unfortunate for my inner novelist but inspiring for my inner filmmaker. This film makes no qualms about going to the core of oppression and techniques oppressors engage in to keep systems in place that promote inferiority and dependence. It is sad to see so many correlations between 1830s life and 2016. This film addresses the atrocities of slavery as expected. As the story unfolds and reveals the lack of humanity towards slaves in general, its insight on the lack of respect toward women slaves is poignant and upsetting. (Still not quite able to articulate the way black women were so totally disrespected in ways so present today.) "The Birth of A Nation" speaks to the heart of the fundamental and systematic institutions that were established that have brought us to our current state of civil unrest. Shit is deep.
I'm supporting this film and suggesting others do as well. I'm supporting the art set forth in this piece and suggesting people come to their own conclusions about the artist. I'm declaring that I can separate art from the artist. I'm suggesting that we take into account the timing of this media campaign. I'm further suggesting if we are truly outraged about sexual violence against women, we take stands to change the overall culture that promotes these violations. (I don't see the same outrage toward that white boy who was caught in the act of assaulting someone who was PASSED OUT! Nah he was "too soft" to go to jail!)
Nate Parker is flawed and on that night in 1999 he fucked up. Royally. I'm in no way saying that I support rape culture nor do I suggest you do. I'm just suggesting this film offers a perspective that is rarely seen and I don't think they want us to see it as they fear the thought of a 2016 revolt. As usual, I suggest you do what works for you and leave the rest, but I think this film is a must see and can bring about something that is rare these days: Action toward a resolution. Like Nat and his crew, we as a people are being pushed to the brink. What would happen if we rise up to the corporate structures and institutional racism and classism? What would happen then?
Sidenote: I also wonder if the timeframe is the "Make America Great Again" period they speak about. The slave masters in the film really thought they were doing what was right...