The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker’s passion project, officially opened this past Friday, but the film has been generating headlines for months. When it opened at the Sundance Film Festival in January, backlash against Hollywood for its lack of representation of people of color under the rallying cry #OscarsSoWhite was gaining steam; the movie—written by, directed by, and starring Parker and bringing to the screen the real life the slave rebellion led by preacher Nat Turner in 1831—won both the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award and the U.S. Dramatic Jury Award. These accolades were followed up by a record-breaking deal with Fox Searchlight to distribute the movie. Parker, a first-time director who had put years into this project, was hailed as a harbinger of change for the movie business. Oscar buzz flew.
Fast-forward a few months, and reports surfaced about a 1999 sexual assault charge brought against Parker and his friend. Parker was tried and acquitted, but the alleged victim’s suicide years later threw suspicion on that ruling. Critics and industry insiders quickly started backpedaling in their support of the film, and the story shifted from being about a movie that could change the conversation in Hollywood to a story about distrust in the justice system’s handling of sexual assault allegations, as well as whether consumers have a moral obligation to stay away from art created by an artist whose character has been called into question.
The question of whether art can be judged within a bubble is a complicated one. On the one hand, if we dismissed art based on the personal failings of the artist, we wouldn’t produce Shakespearean plays due to his abandonment of his wife and children; we wouldn’t dance along to Whitney Houston or Michael Jackson songs due to the substance abuse of the former and the alleged child abuse of the latter; we wouldn’t be able to appreciate the masterpiece of In Cold Blood because of Capote’s reputation as a backstabbing social climber.
And yet, sometimes we do feel it’s right to judge the art by the artist. I was not troubled when Mel Gibson’s lauded career tanked after he was recorded spewing anti-Semitic vitriol, for instance. And while I do go see Woody Allen films, I always feel conflicted doing so.
As a woman who is deeply concerned about how often the courts of both public opinion and justice treat sexual assault victims, should I support The Birth of a Nation? And how about as a woman who is also concerned by the damaging lack of inclusive representation in Hollywood?
Even after seeing the movie, I find this question hard to answer. If I knew absolutely nothing about the surrounding story and could critique the film out of context, I would say that The Birth of a Nation is an impressive outing by a first-time director with an emotional punch that helps smooth over the clumsier moments of heavy-handed symbolism. The film is by no means perfect, but the cast is solid, and the females, especially, turn in quietly compelling performances.
It cannot be denied that the movie makes you think. It reinforces that sexual assault against women is an unbearable injustice. It makes you think about the United States’ shameful history of violence against blacks and about how the collective memory of how we built this country relates to current social unrest. It makes you think about how hypocritical people can use religion as a tool to oppress whole communities. And it pleads with you to remember that the moment we forget to acknowledge and respect the humanity of those around us, we sow seeds of discord that undermine the great ideals on which our country was founded.
I feel it is also important to acknowledge that this is my experience with the film. I have no doubt that others in the theater with me, those whose roots are entangled in slavery and the continuing need to fight for equality, will have a different connection to the film. The Birth of a Nation may not be my story, but it is still a story whose potential implications and impact touch on issues of great importance to me.
Can I support and recommend the film? In the end, I still don’t know. I do know that my default impulse, both in life and in my consumption of the arts, tends to be that of compassion and a true desire for everyone to be able to make their voices heard. Uncomfortable art made by uncomfortable people can still be worth examining. So if it is possible for The Birth of a Nation to give voice to these two important issues, I hope it succeeds in that. I hope, whether or not one chooses to see the film, people will understand why it was an important movie to make in the first place and so will continue to support arts and entertainment that display the glorious diversity of our world. And I hope people who see it will use both Nate Parker’s personal history, and the stories of Cherry and Esther told in the movie, to fight harder to prevent sexual violence and victim blaming. I hope that art, even when it is not perfect or cannot exist in a bubble, can continue to push people to take pause and think about the world around them. That I can always support.
Photo Credit: Twentieth Century Fox