Why I Will Be Uncomfortable Watching The Birth Of A Nation

Photo: Courtesy of Fox Searchlight.
I have not yet seen The Birth of a Nation. But every time I watch the trailer, I feel chills down my spine. Seeing beautifully filmed imagery of how the torment of our Black ancestors fueled their courage — in a film with a mostly Black cast — feels nothing short of incredible. And while it's great that this is a much-buzzed-about answer to #OscarsSoWhite, The Birth of a Nation has the power to be much bigger than one awards show. During a time when Black men around the country are experiencing a modern form of lynching at the hands of police officers, the history of how we, as Black people, came together and put our bodies, families, and lives on the line for our basic human rights could not be more timely.

And yet, in the past week, a dark cloud has rolled in over the groundbreaking film. Though the case has been public knowledge for years, a recent Deadline report reminded us that the movie's director and lead actor, Nate Parker, now 36, was accused of having nonconsensual sex with a passed-out college student at Penn State University when he was 19. He was found not guilty at trial. “I never felt the need to introduce all the obstacles in my past when I say, ‘Hello, my name is Nate,’" Parker told Deadline. "It’s tough reliving it, 17 years after the fact, but I never hid it from Fox."

When I was first reminded of the sexual assault case, I was deeply disappointed. How could someone who was once accused of rape create a film that largely centers on the plight of the Black body during slavery — that painfully, I hear, portrays the horrific, brutal rapes of many of our ancestors? Still, I tried to give Parker the benefit of the doubt, despite the fact that he also once stated that he will never play a gay character in an effort to "preserve the Black man."

Like me, she was once a young, hopeful Penn State student, and like me, she was a woman with a body that men often felt entitled to.

As a Black woman who witnesses how quickly the world will rush to tarnish a Black man's image, I've always been hesitant to tear a Black man down, especially since, in this case, technically his name was cleared. And full disclosure: Like Parker and his college roommate Jean McGianni Celestin (who was also involved in the incident and convicted of sexual assault, though the conviction was later overturned), I also went to Penn State, just a few years after they graduated. I once met Celestin at a party, and Parker is a success story in the PSU Black community. It was hard to believe that a contemporary of mine, who once starred in a film alongside Denzel Washington and went on to create what may be the most influential film of 2016, was capable of such a thing.

And then came yesterday's news that Parker's accuser killed herself back in 2012. "She became detached from reality," her brother told Variety. "If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point." I then did some additional reading and learned that the woman had filed a civil suit in 2002 against the university for failing to respond to her multiple reports of harassment by Parker and Celestin. After allegedly being both sexually assaulted and then repeatedly harassed by the pair, she dropped out of school on numerous occasions and tried to kill herself; we now know that she eventually did so a decade later.
Suddenly, the narrative changed. It was no longer about a rising star who was once involved in a college sexual assault case; it was about a rising star who, it seems, was involved in an incident that caused a woman to kill herself. This was no longer just a tragic situation, but a tragedy that resulted in death. This woman could have been me or any of my friends; like me, she was once a young, hopeful Penn State student, and like me, she was a woman with a body that men often felt entitled to — even if that body was so far from consciousness that it couldn't speak or respond clearly.

I felt sick to my stomach when I read that this woman had ended her own life, while Parker is out in the world walking red carpets and doing interviews, smiling for the camera. After all, this is the story of Nat Turner, whose rage toward the white race was first ignited by the rape of his own mother. One of the film's stars, Gabrielle Union, has bravely talked about being raped herself, and how that experience was what gave her the courage to portray a slave who gets assaulted. According to Parker, he is innocent, which means that he doesn't consider what happened in that college apartment rape. I wondered: When he and Celestin (who shares a co-story credit on the picture) were writing the rape scenes in the movie, did they think about the time they had sex with an unconscious woman, one after the other? Did they think of the way they had disrespected her body, and then transfer those emotions to the big screen?
Parker maintains his innocence, and has never acknowledged that having sex with a passed-out person can never be consensual (even though a judge ruled that Celestin, who was also implicated, did indeed commit sexual assault). Parker is even maintaining his innocence despite a recently surfaced call transcript between Parker and his accuser, in which the woman asks him, point-blank, how many people had sex with her that night because she was passed out and doesn't remember. He also has yet to address the allegations that he and Celestin harassed the girl to the point that she dropped out of school and, as we now know, eventually killed herself.

"While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom," Parker wrote in an open letter on Facebook on August 16. "I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will. Please don’t take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement. I urge you only to take accept this letter as my response to the moment."

I will no longer be able to champion the movie through awards season, will no longer swell with pride that a Black brother and fellow Penn Stater is behind this story.

I hate to break it to you, Nate, but this is more than just a "moment." It's much more than an issue of "morality." Regardless of what you may have thought happened when you were 19, at 36 years old, you should be man enough to say: "That was rape. I am sorry. Maybe I didn't realize at the time that it was rape, but it was, and my actions may have caused a woman to take her own life."

Of course, this situation brings up an age-old debate: whether or not it's possible to separate the art from the artist, a question that swirls around everyone from Pablo Picasso to Michael Jackson to Woody Allen. I firmly believe this is a personal choice for everyone, and especially in this case; there are so many strands in this complicated web, from the fact that legally, Parker's name was cleared, to issues of race, historical context, gender privilege, and the way universities handle sexual assault.

My personal, honest truth is: I will go see The Birth of a Nation. I deeply believe this film is too important to our cultural discourse to boycott because of the irresponsible actions of its creator. I'm still very much moved by the fact that, come October, there will be a group of incredibly talented brown-skinned actors leading a major motion picture, bringing to life the heroes that were often left out of our textbooks. I know that, regardless of how it came to be, this is an urgent, significant cultural moment not just for Black people, but for our country — our nation.

I will no longer, however, be able to watch The Birth of a Nation with an open heart. I will no longer be able to champion the movie through awards season, will no longer swell with pride that a Black brother and fellow Penn Stater is behind this story. As a member of the media, I cannot and will not shower the picture with glowing reviews and praise without nodding to the tarnished history of the man who gave birth to it. Just as some may defend Parker's innocence or ignore his past, I am entitled to feel that unfortunately, in this case, it's impossible to separate the art from the man.

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