When Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in January, Parker thanked God and Sundance when accepting the awards. The realization that audiences were ready for a story about Nat Turner, a black man from Virginia at the center of a slave revolt that led to the deaths of at least 55 white people and eventually his execution, was underscored when Parker walked away with a record-breaking studio deal from Fox Searchlight to the tune of $17.5 million.
This film, which hits theaters today, challenges dominant images of scared, complicit or happy enslaved blacks featured in most Hollywood films, and it will be on thousands of screens throughout the world—not to mention in a country still battling demons from its precarious past.
Parker’s The Birth of a Nation directly challenged D.W. Griffith’s iconic, yet racist, film of the same name, which was the first film ever screened at the White House. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation is often celebrated for its technical mastery and seen as the film that established many of the stylistic and storytelling norms of classical Hollywood cinema. His film is rarely credited with also establishing the despicable representations of women, blacks, white supremacists, slavery and reconstruction, depictions that have also stood the test of time.
Parker’s decision to make this film about a slave rebellion is a symbolic rebellion against a Hollywood system that has historically enslaved the images of women and people of color in the many films it has produced. If 12 Years a Slave opened the door, then BOAN knocked it down with its rise from indie darling to mainstream feature. Even my black and brown friends, many of whom had sworn off slavery films or television shows, were planning on seeing this film. What could possibly go wrong to derail this much needed, critically acclaimed rebuttal to the plantation lullabies traditionally trotted out by big, bad Hollywood?
One word: rape. Parker had been charged with and acquitted of sexual assault charges while a student-athlete at Penn State in 1999. Pundits, critics, bloggers, activists and thought leaders used all forms of legacy and new media to discuss whether audiences should see or boycott the film. While some believe that Parker was targeted because of the controversial film's positive reception, since these decades-old charges have long been available to the public, it was Parker who proved to be the biggest issue in the ongoing controversy.
It was Parker and his public relations team who made the “brilliant” decision to get out in front of the controversy by having Parker address the rape incident. What they didn’t know was that Parker’s accuser committed suicide in 2012 and that transcripts of the trial would be made available to the public. They also didn’t figure that Parker would stand firm in his innocence and refuse to apologize for what happened to the victim.
This is the real reason many are boycotting the film. Parker’s unwillingness to acknowledge his flaws, even if he didn’t understand at that young age what consent was, speaks volumes about his character. It is often difficult for people to separate the art from the artist, particularly when it comes to subjects like rape and murder. This is an industry where rapists, child molesters and accused murderers are revered—see any number of Hollywood producers, not just the usual suspects of Woody Allen, Roman Polanski and Victor Salva.
Unlike Polanski and Salva, who were convicted of their crimes, Parker was found not guilty. Of course, race and racism play a role in how Parker is being treated by the media, in the same way that it has played a role in how Bill Cosby has been treated. But just because racism is real does not take away from accusations of having sex with an unconscious woman, which is legally defined as rape, even if you personally don’t see it that way.
People have asked me over and over why I haven’t written about this film, or how I could see it. The answer is simple. Hollywood is very much a despicable industry made up of despicable people who are flawed and who come from precarious circumstances. The casting couch is a known practice in Hollywood, but it hasn’t stopped audiences from seeing movies made by people who participate in that practice as predator or victim.
Clearly, I’m not talking about everyone in Hollywood. I am saying that this is an industry whose very structure and existence is built on the deplorable treatment of people in general and women and people of color specifically. So why is this film and its director, who hasn’t been coming off well in most of his interviews, any different? If people really cared about the rape and sexual assault of women, then they would boycott most films.
Believe me, if you are an audience member, you are also complicit in the sometimes questionable treatment of women and people of color in Hollywood. Is the solution to boycott this film, or to contact your college or university and see what you can do so that 1 in 5 college women won’t be sexually assaulted before they graduate?
The Birth of a Nation is a decent film, but it is not spectacular. In fact, it’s a little slow-moving, as character-driven films can be. Some have said that it was overhyped from the beginning; others take exception to the “onion-thin” construction of black female characters; while others think this film marks the birth of a “new” talent. The truth is probably somewhere in between. It is a film that was made to challenge dominant representations of slavery and people of color in the Hollywood plantation genre.
As a film scholar and critic, how could I not see the film? As a black woman, I’m disgusted by Parker's responses to the accusations. My area of expertise is the intersectionality of race, class, gender and sexuality, so I understand how difficult it is for any man, let alone a black man accused of raping a white woman, to ever shake the charge of rape, even one that’s nearly two decades old.
It is Parker’s current response to the incident that has continued to create this problem for him and his film, and he’ll have to deal with that poor decision-making. If a man with five daughters and four sisters—one of whom was sexually assaulted in college, according to Parker during his interview with Steve Harvey—doesn’t understand what an apology for what happened that night would mean for survivors and potential attackers, then he’s a lost cause in my book.
Unless the Hollywood film industry has changed overnight, then he’s exactly where he should be. I will be seeing this important film again, just as I have to see many others made by people with questionable characters. Even though Parker can’t seem to get out of his own way, he must get out of mine so that I can see the film I’ve been waiting to see with mainstream audiences since I was a college student.
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Nsenga K. Burton, Ph.D., a media scholar, is digital editor in chief at Grady Newsource and a faculty member of the Cox Institute of Journalism, Innovation, Management & Leadership at the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia. She is founder and editor in chief of the award-winning news blog the Burton Wire. Follow her on Twitter here or here.