GWEN IFILL: But, first: The filmmaker behind one of the more widely anticipated and potentially controversial movies of the year is now at the center of his own controversy touching on sexual assault, consent, and race.
In a year when Hollywood’s troubles with diversity have been well-chronicled, actor and director Nate Parker film “Birth of a Nation” promised to be a breakthrough. But Parker’s own tangled past has changed the conversation.
Jeffrey Brown has the story.
JEFFREY BROWN: “The Birth of a Nation” tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.
NATE PARKER, “The Birth of a Nation”: The lord has spoken to me, visions of what’s to come, a rise of good against evil.
ACTOR: What are we going to do?
NATE PARKER: We will fight. Once it begins, our brothers and sisters will join. And we will number in the hundreds, thousands even.
JEFFREY BROWN: Thirty-six-year-old Nate Parker wrote, directed and starred in the movie, which first wowed audiences last January at the Sundance Film Festival. Parker spoke of his motivation.
NATE PARKER: When people asked me who I wanted to be like, I would say Nat Turner. So, about two years ago, I stepped away from acting and said, the next film I’m involved with will be “The Birth of a Nation.”
JEFFREY BROWN: The film won the audience award and the grand jury prize at Sundance. Fox Searchlight bought its rights for a festival record $17.5 million, and its national release is due in October.
But, earlier this month, headlines emerged about a 1999 rape allegation made against Parker when he was a student at Penn State. The alleged victim claimed she’d been unconscious. Parker was charged and later acquitted.
Parker’s friend and “Birth of a Nation” co-writer Jean Celestin was also accused in the case. He was convicted, but the verdict was overturned on appeal.
In a recent interview with “Variety” magazine, Parker reiterated his claim that the sex was consensual.
“Seventeen years ago,” he said, “I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker.”
The remarks struck a nerve, especially after the revelation days later that the alleged victim had killed herself in 2012.
Last week, in his first interview since learning about the suicide, Parker changed his tone, telling “Ebony” magazine: “I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. My only thought was, I’m innocent and everyone needs to I know. I didn’t even think for a second about her.”
Also last week, the American Film Institute canceled a screening of the movie.
And we explore some of the issues surrounding this with Roxane Gay, writer/author of the essay collection “Bad Feminist,” and associate professor at Purdue University, and Mike Sargent, chief film critic for Pacifica Radio and co-president of the Black Film Critics Circle.
Welcome to both of you.
Let me start with you, Roxane Gay.
You wrote recently: “I am struggling to have empathy for Nate Parker, a man experiencing the height of his career, while being forced to reckon with his past.”
So, explain that. Was there a conflict of emotions when you first learned of this?
ROXANE GAY, Purdue University: Absolutely.
You know, when you follow someone’s career trajectory, and you see them at the height of their career with a critically acclaimed film that sold for a record amount of money at Sundance, of course I want him to do very well, I want the movie to succeed.
But I cannot overlook these allegations against him. He was acquitted, yes, but his handling of the incident troubles me. The fact that the incident occurred at all troubles me. That he’s still friends with the man with whom he was accused troubles me.
And so I want to have empathy for him, but I have far more empathy for the victim and for the truth.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Sargent, I assume you were first aware of the film as a filmmaker yourself and film critic. What were your thoughts when you learned about this?
MIKE SARGENT, Film Critic, Pacifica Radio: Well, I was conflicted on many levels, because, as a filmmaker, you know, it’s great to see a black filmmaker get to make something.
Black historical dramas are not easy to, A, get made, and they don’t generally do too well. As a film critic, of course, I want to support black filmmakers.
But I’m also a father of a daughter who’s in college. So this strikes a particular chord with me. And similar to Roxane, his handling of it and his attitude about it, I mean, he is, after all, a storyteller. And very often, we tell ourselves stories that we begin to believe.
So, I am conflicted. I can’t say I won’t see the film. I definitely will. But, no, I don’t think that he’s doing what he could and probably should in terms of atoning for what has happened.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, Roxane Gay, what should he be doing? And what should we as audience members do? You and others have said this raises an old question, right, about what — can you love the art, even while you hate or disdain, or whatever, the artist?
ROXANE GAY: Absolutely. It’s really challenging.
And I myself, as I wrote in my editorial for The Times, cannot separate the art and the artist, or I choose not to. But I do think we have to have a conversation about restorative justice, because, as a culture, we do not know how to achieve justice for victims of sexual violence.
And I don’t think that someone’s life should end because they commit a crime, but I do want to see atonement. I do want to see him having more self-examination about the role that he played that night, because there was a third man there, and he recognized that it was a bad situation and that this young woman was probably in no position to consent, and he walked away.
JEFFREY BROWN: But he — but can I say — but can I just interrupt you for a second?
ROXANE GAY: Yes.
JEFFREY BROWN: Because a bad situation, but, at least legally, no crime committed, because it’s worth saying again found not guilty.
ROXANE GAY: Well, legally, lots of things are allowed that shouldn’t be allowed.
It was more than a mistake. I consider it to have been a crime. I think that, when a woman is passed out drunk, she cannot consent, and that sex shouldn’t be on the table in any way, shape or form. I call it rape.
You know, we don’t know what happened that night, but I do think that I would like to see just more acknowledgment. And the interview that Parker did with “Ebony” is a step in the right direction, but it was also the kind of interview where you can tell that he was really well-coached by a publicist, and he was saying most of the right things, while also just acknowledging that he has never really thought about gender, and that he didn’t really think about the victim ever. And that troubles me.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Sargent, what about this question of the art vs. the artist, and especially in a case like this, as you both have said, that the role of race in both the film and the filmmaker?
MIKE SARGENT: Well, I think the role of race is undeniable.
I mean, you know, there are definitely filmmakers who have done very, very more than questionable things, whether it’s a Roman Polanski or a Woody Allen, and they have gone to not only have long careers, but win Oscars.
But the question does become, can you separate the artist from the art, and should you? And at what point have you atoned? At what point — what could and should he be doing?
That is a good question. I mean, I have my own ideas of what I think he should do and how I think he should address it. But, again, like Roxane said, he’s being coached. He’s being held — there is a way he needs to present himself, so that they can still do well with this film.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Sargent, it was announced today that there is going to be a press conference that he’s speaking at, at the Toronto Film Festival in a few weeks. What would you like him to say?
MIKE SARGENT: Well, for me, I would him to — as Roxane mentioned, I would like some more self-examination.
I mean, let’s look at this for a little bit. I mean, even if he himself feels that he didn’t commit this act, and if he felt it was consensual, you know, she went under, after that, what would be termed bullying after that. She became a victim.
Now, that is something that, as a man and as a father — and he’s got daughters — you know, this is something he needs to address, all of it. How do we handle these things? How should young men treat themselves? There are a lot of things that he could be doing and a lot of things he could be addressing in regards to this whole matter, because this matter is something that it’s not just about race.
It’s specifically about gender, but it’s also about, you know, once you have, let’s say, been acquitted of this, that doesn’t mean you can turn your back on it. There was still something he was involved in that ended up contributing to a woman’s death.
JEFFREY BROWN: Well, so, let me just ask, finally, Roxane Gay, will you see the film? Do you think others should see the fill?
ROXANE GAY: I am not going to see the film, no.
But I do think that people should do what they want to do. The reality is that he’s not the only person that worked on this movie. There is an entire cast and crew that put a lot of work and a lot of really thoughtful work into the making of this movie.
And so I am in no way suggesting that other people shouldn’t. I just cannot personally do it, for many reasons, both personal and just ethical.
JEFFREY BROWN: And, Mike Sargent, briefly, will you see the film?
MIKE SARGENT: Well, as a film critic, I really have to see the film.
I have to be able to see the film. I have to be able to judge it on its own merits as a film. But I can’t ignore what happened behind it, and I can’t ignore the history behind the filmmaker.
JEFFREY BROWN: Mike Sargent and Roxane Gay, thank you both very much.
ROXANE GAY: Thank you.
MIKE SARGENT: Thank you.
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