In a year when Republican Presidential Nominee Donald Trump has secured white Americans’ fear of a diversifying nation into a national campaign, where rhetoric alienating people of color has been thrown into a public arena, many thought this fall’s The Birth of a Nation, depicting the unlikely success of an African American during the nineteenth century, might be a national reckoning.
This was before the country learned that the film’s star and director, Nate Parker, had allegedly raped a woman when he was a college student at Penn State University. Parker’s roommate, Jean Celestin, had allegedly raped the same woman, and that four years ago, Parker and Celestin’s victim had committed suicide. Celestin went on to co-write The Birth of a Nation. The question emerges of whether or not it is still ethical to view the film.
A strict answer is not available, because that would be as complicated as the situation itself. Audiences should not purchase tickets to The Birth of a Nation with the notion that they will help Parker and Celestin, that they appreciate their creativity, their individual personality. Anyone who watches The Birth of a Nation should be doing so because the content is important, because the content is relevant and because the history of people of color is one so rarely told in the realm of cinema. It is going to be up to the individual to decide if he or she can stand not to reconcile the film with the filmmaker, a qualm that seems to plague audiences time and time again.
This story is tragic and angering, and by far one of the most complicated and situations for a national movie-going audience to process. It may no longer be ethical to watch The Birth of a Nation in theaters, when the movie is released this October. We should not pay to watch a movie that promises to be one of the most important of the year, if it means our tickets will fund two alleged rapists. And we would not still be asking ourselves these questions if The Birth of a Nation was just a flimsy summer blockbuster, not a movie about slavery and diversity, one so relevant to the national conversation we have today.
Of course, it all comes down to whether or not we can, and should, separate the artist (in this case, artists) from the work. The situation changes when money, our money, is thrown into the mix. Critics praised Parker for the film and his supposed reconstruction of American identity (the title for The Birth of a Nation is a response to the 1915 film of the same name, which features racist portrayals of Black people).
And yet, lauding of Parker for his efforts to promote the history of people of color necessarily factors him into the equation; if one can praise an artist for thinking up this material, must they also not decry him for allegedly thinking it was acceptable, 17 years ago, to rape and abuse a woman? This is complicated by the fact that if you watch the trailer for this film, there is a clear reference to the sexual abuse of black women by white slave owners. So here are Parker and Celestin, each alleged rapists, attempting a commentary on sexual assault in the age of slavery.
We must respond.
Parker and Celestin are hardly the only people to work on this movie. And a great majority of these people have not been accused of rape. Again, here is the trouble: Parker writes, directs and stars in the movie. It is very much his film, derived almost entirely from him.
The rape that Parker and Celestin have been accused of is 17 years old, and the woman who accused them has taken her own life. She is gone, and Parker and Celestin have become internationally renowned filmmakers. The history of college sexual assault is a long and despicable one, where more often than not, the rapist walks free. But the art is in a historical and racial narrative.
This cannot alter the events of 17 years ago, but if Parker is as “devastated” as he claims to be, then he and Celestin should take the resources that have come into their possession and make tangible change.
It is the least they can do.