Let me start here: I will be seeing Nate Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation' during its opening weekend.
I've been tracking this cinematic telling of the slave revolt incited by Nat Turner in Southampton, Virginia, 1831, since it took this year's Sundance Film Festival by storm, ultimately selling to Fox Searchlight for a record 17.5 million dollars. The story of actor/writer/director/producer Nate Parker refusing to take another acting job until he could realize his vision to make this movie, is an inspiring one. Parker has been on the scene for more than a decade, turning in solid work in 'The Great Debaters', 'Red Tails', 'Arbitrage' and a host of other films. With the enthusiastic response to his directorial debut, Parker was headed for a richer, more varied career than most of his peers, regardless of race or gender.
In recent weeks, Parker has been in the news, but surely not in the way he would like. In 1999, Parker and his college roommate were accused of raping a fellow student while attending Penn State University. Parker was acquitted, his roommate was charged, but the conviction was later overturned when the victim refused to testify a second time. As the story caught fire, Variety magazine reported that the victim committed suicide in 2012, which fanned the flames even higher.
There are a lot of moving pieces to this story, and as I've thought about it, I wanted to be sure that I didn't slight or minimize the suffering this young woman endured, resulting in a despondent life that ended much too soon, at 30 years of age. I don't know if I'll get it right, but I wanted to state my intention.
Nate Parker was found not guilty in a court of law. That should mean something. Did he do it? It sounds like it, from the description of the event, to the phone records of his conversation with the victim after the fact, to his very deliberate and somewhat evasive recent statements regarding that night. Nate Parker, at the very least, knew that was not one of his better moments. But, he was charged, faced the consequences and was acquitted.
Here's where it gets tricky for me. There are several things going on at once:
1. A powerful new film about a black uprising in America is derailed by news of the events of 16 years ago.
2. Charges of conspiracy to sabotage the film abound, due to the suspect timing of this uproar.
3. Nate Parker's passionate, but ultimately misguided remarks on the event didn't help his situation.
4. People who have nothing to do with it, have decided that they have the right to determine what Parker's responsibility is in dealing with this situation, and most importantly,
5. The young woman at the center of the storm is dead and her circumstance is being appropriated by a number of entities, some with noble intentions, others, not so much.
I titled this piece 'The Birth of a Nation- A Long and Painful Labor', to describe not just the film but the state of our Union. Since Barack Obama's election in 2008, what was thought to be a significant step forward in America's relationship with race, has instead revealed repeatedly that not only are race relations still far from being healed, the cover to a simmering pot has boiled to overflow. To be clear, progress has been made, but as the middle class struggles and the poverty stricken fight to stay alive, anger has continued to build, and resentment towards people of color has taken on a violent, angry hue that is neither compassionate nor conciliatory. The ascent of Donald Trump rode that wave to end up as the worst Republican candidate for President in the history of this country, and that's saying something. America is still giving birth and it hurts like hell.
I've heard more than once about people being tired of seeing 'slave' movies. Comments like, 'Why do they keep throwing it up in our face?' 'It was hundreds of years ago, why can't they just move on?' are commonplace. With the current fragile climate, 'The Birth of A Nation' in the best of circumstances would be a volatile film to play in multiplexes. But add to the mix the reality and backlash of #oscarssowhite of the last two years, cries of overcompensation towards people of color this year, with a film like 'The Birth of a Nation' , stir in Nate Parker's personal travails and you have TNT waiting to explode.
I do believe that the timing of this scandal was strategic. While not shining a light on one of his darkest moments, Parker's Wikipedia page acknowledged the incident long before the release of 'The Birth of A Nation'. So it's impossible for me to believe that these 'revelations' are a coincidence, when the information has been available and accessible for years. But there was no reason to 'bust' Parker when he was just an actor going from job to job. But to be heading towards awards season with a head of steam surrounding a film about black defiance in America, in the midst of a cultural turning point where white entitlement is challenged again and again? This went down the way it did for a reason. As my sister Vivian Chew said to me this morning, "if he made a movie about black folks beating and killing black folks, this rape situation never would have seen the light of day'. Sadly, I have to agree with her.
Nate Parker isn't the first black man to be acquitted of a crime that he quite possibly committed (OJ anyone?), but he's surely one of the very few. He's also not the first 19 year old college student who made a horrifically bad decision when it comes to respecting a woman's dignity and personal rights. If you believe he did 'get away with it', he'll never get too far from it, because it's a part of his history, as well as a part of our cultural history. Not only will he pay a price socially, but he'll pay an unimaginably painful price personally. As a husband and father of five girls, he ultimately has to deal with the pain of ultimately having to involve his children in this shoddy episode in their father's life, while also dealing with the ramifications it brings to his marriage.
At the same time, Parker has shown himself to be socially conscious, focused on uplifting others and trying to do good work. Cynics can certainly shoot those good works down. I don't know what's in the man's heart, but clearly at 36, he's not living the way he was at 19. That doesn't absolve him of his behavior on that bad night, but I think it should count for something, because he could have just as easily kept his head down and stayed out of the firing line. That doesn't make him brave, or a hero, but it does make him someone who chose to wrestle publicly with a situation that leaves him deeply tarnished, both personally and professionally.
As far as I'm concerned, he'll be paying the price for his actions for the rest of his life. I don't need Nate Parker to say or do anything else regarding that night. It seems from his recent comments that he knows that he didn't do the right thing, even if he can't say the words 'I'm sorry'. But even if he did, that wouldn't be enough for those that feel like he owes them something. The only people he owes anything to are his family and the family of the deceased. He'll be figuring out how to pay those debts for a long time. That's more than punishment enough.
So I'm going to see 'The Birth of A Nation' to see the accomplishment of a talented group of individuals, both in front of and behind the camera, who had nothing to do with the events of Nate Parker's current notoriety. It's an important story, and one that has relevance as we gird ourselves for the last few weeks before this critical presidential election. I can be down with the message, without being down with the messenger. But I support Nate Parker's right and continuing efforts to strive to be a better man.