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In case you’ve never heard of the film The Birth of a Nation, it is about the famous slave rebellion orchestrated by Nat Turner in 1831. The responsibility of writer, director and star actor rested on one man’s shoulders: Nate Parker. After premiering “The Birth of a Nation” at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, Parker made history by signing a deal with Fox Searchlight to sell his film for $17.5 million. That record-breaking number was the catalyst for the Oscar buzz that was soon to come surrounding this film. “The Birth of a Nation” has been heralded as the remedy to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that plagued this past awards season. However, the film’s supporters are now dwindling in numbers, made even more apparent by its lack of success at the box offices on its opening weekend. The man who birthed this film, Nate Parker, is to blame for this.
In August 1999, Nate Parker was charged, tried and acquitted of sexual assault against an 18-year-old female student while he attended Penn State University. His co-writer on The Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, was also involved in the assault, but was found guilty and then later acquitted due to the alleged victim not wanting to testify again. Both the men went on to live their lives while their accuser ended up in a drug rehabilitation facility where she committed suicide in 2012. Hauntingly, her death certificate stated that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, poly-substance abuse…” Now that the allegations have been brought back to light, people are up in arms about the way Nate Parker is handling being questioned about the case.
Courtesy: The A.V. Club
In an interview with Ebony Magazine when asked if he has thought about the girl and the incident over the last 17 years, he responded, “No, I had not. I hadn’t thought about it at all.” That quote is just one of the examples of a response that exemplifies Parker’s male supremacist attitude that has been upsetting people. It seems as if he just wants to glaze over the case and get people to solely pay attention to his film, which is steadily losing its Oscar buzz.
Another reason that the allegations toward him have sparked interest and concern is because two of the most powerful scenes in the film involve the rape of Nat Turner’s wife and the rape of a slave named Esther, played by Gabrielle Union, who is a survivor of rape herself. In an interview with Essence Magazine, Union speaks on the subject, “As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult, I don’t want to put myself above anyone’s pain or triggers. Every victim or survivor, I believe you. I support you. I support you if you don’t want to see the film. I absolutely understand and respect that. I can’t sell the film… We [the cast] are okay if you have to sit this one out, and we’re okay if you don’t.”
Besides Nate Parker being Nate Parker, the other issue that people are struggling with is whether or not to support him and his film for the sole reason that he is black, regardless of his character. Some people may say yes, you should go see the film, especially with the severe imbalance of recognition that black filmmakers get compared to white ones, hence #OscarsSoWhite. However, Wesley Morris of The New York Times shares a different view saying, “I’m going to tell America right now, you do not have to see this movie. There was probably a time in the early ’90s when a movie like this would have been important to go support: ‘You have to go support this movie because black people may never work again.’” Thankfully, in 2016, Nate Parker’s lens is not the only colored one through which we have the option to look. Ultimately, when choosing whether or not to see and support The Birth of a Nation, one will have to decide whether or not they can separate the man from his work.