The Birth of a Nation is a movie about race and rebellion. It’s about risk and retribution. But the often-brutal film, starring and directed by Nate Parker, is about something else as well. It’s a story about rape.
Based on the true account of Nat Turner, the leader of a failed 1831 slave revolt, the film pivots on the weight of two separate rapes: the brutal attack of Turner’s wife, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), by multiple men, followed by the less violent but no less harrowing rape of Esther (Gabrielle Union), a slave “given” to a household guest for a night. There’s no evidence that either assault happened as portrayed, but as a narrative device they change the direction of the story, inspiring Turner’s revolt.
Viewing the film, then, it’s difficult to forget about another rape that’s taken centre stage in The Birth of a Nation’s narrative: in 1999, when Parker and Jean Celestin (his friend and the film’s co-writer) were students at Penn State University, they were charged with sexually assaulting an 18-year-old first-year student. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was found guilty, appealed and eventually the case was dropped. But the trial transcripts are damning, and the accuser, who committed suicide in 2012, is no longer available to speak out.
Should viewers care about artists' pasts? Should it affect how or if they see their work? Whether it’s Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski or Jon Hamm, artists are sometimes accused of doing horrible things. Do audiences have a responsibility to pay attention or should they just enjoy the art?
When it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival last January, The Birth of a Nation earned standing ovations. Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for distribution rights, a record amount for the festival. Fully aware of Parker’s past, they clearly hoped audiences would turn a blind eye. And why shouldn’t they, when filmmakers like Allen and Polanski — both accused of sexually assaulting minors — continue to thrive? For many, the film was seen as the answer to #OscarsSoWhite, and a shoe-in for 2017 awards glory.
When news of Parker’s rape charges spread, though, some weren’t as willing to shrug it off. “We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art,” culture critic Roxane Gay wrote in a New York Times Op-Ed. “Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be.”
And if you listen to Allen’s son, Ronan Farrow, support like that matters. In a guest column for the Hollywood Reporter in May, Farrow broke his silence about his father’s alleged sexual assault of Farrow’s sister Dylan, when she was only seven. A journalist himself, Farrow criticized the media, which has traditionally been reluctant to cover his father’s alleged crime. Like Parker, Allen was never convicted of the 1992 allegations (the prosecutor, along with Dylan’s mother, Mia Farrow, opted not to pursue charges so as not to put Dylan through a trial and resulting media attention), but the evidence is incriminatory.
Yet Allen’s films continue to attract audiences and a string of A-list actors. Most recently, he worked with Miley Cyrus on the Amazon Studios comedy TV series Crisis in Six Scenes, which he wrote, starred in and directed. Cyrus, despite a reputation for being outspoken, has kept her opinions on her co-star’s alleged actions to herself. “That kind of silence isn’t just wrong,” Ronan Farrow wrote. “It’s dangerous. It sends a message to victims that it’s not worth the anguish of coming forward. It sends a message about who we are as a society, what we’ll overlook, who we’ll ignore, who matters and who doesn’t.”
It’s a lesson Bill Cosby’s accusers — 60 of them as of August, some dating back to the 1960s — learned well. By the time the talk of Cosby’s alleged crimes erupted on social media in 2014, many of those accusers had been trying to speak up for at least a decade. Yet the comedian still had projects planned with Netflix and NBC, unaffected by that fact. In the case of Cosby, it was audiences themselves, more connected today than ever before, who made the difference by letting their outrage be known. That anger had impact, attracting media attention and destroying Cosby’s future project plans. “Fixing this problem demands more than public shaming,” Cosby accuser Barbara Bowman wrote in the Washington Post in 2014. But in this case, it was an important first step.
While public shaming can make a difference, it’s also fickle at best. Audiences may have shunned Parker and The Birth of a Nation, resulting in disappointing box office returns and decline in Oscar anticipation, but Allen and Polanski still prosper. And when news of Jon Hamm’s frat-boy past broke in 2015, he still went on to win an Emmy later that year, and recently starred in a new film, Keeping Up with the Joneses. The Mad Men star was charged in 1990 with hazing and assault when he was at the University of Texas, after he and fellow Sigma Nu fraternity members sent a pledge to the hospital. He later completed probation for the hazing charge, but the news barely seemed to make a dent on the public consciousness when it was revealed years later. Hamm’s established likeability probably played a part. But it’s hard to ignore the fact that race can also play a role in this public outrage gap.
“I recognize that people are complex and cannot be solely defined by their worst deeds,” Gay wrote. And not every artist with a less-than-perfect past deserves automatic condemnation. But that doesn’t mean a conversation can’t occur.
By going to films, audiences give artists a particular power and privilege, so shouldn’t they demand accountability too?
The cases of Parker and Cosby prove that accountability is
possible, that audiences have power. By using our collective power
effectively, maybe we can show that good art isn’t all that’s important.
Sometimes life itself should take precedence.
Lisa Van de Ven is a freelance writer in Toronto.