For ‘Birth of a Nation,’ separating artist from art may be impossible

by Ann Hornaday

TORONTO – For the first half of 2016, a powerful narrative was taking shape around the forthcoming release of “The Birth of a Nation,” which is slated for highly anticipated openings this week.

It was not just the narrative told by the period drama, based on the true story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. It was the narrative about the film itself:

A well-liked young actor, Nate Parker, had realized a long-standing dream by making his writing-directing debut – one that, in addition to drawing raves at Sundance in January, was being cheered as a much-needed corrective to the chronic underrepresentation of black stories and artists that inspired the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.

In short, it was a story of pluck, perseverance and social conscience – the kind of back story that the movie marketers who gather at these kinds of festivals dream of. And surely part of the reason that Fox Searchlight Pictures decided to pay a record-breaking $17.5 million for the film.

But now the story has changed, as Parker has sought to answer questions surrounding a sexual assault he and his co-writer were accused of perpetrating while both were sophomores at Penn State in 1999.

After weeks of conversation inside and outside the industry, it’s now clear that theater owners will proceed with plans to screen “Birth of a Nation” – and let audiences decide what to make of it.

But hesitations remain. And it has reopened the perpetual debate about whether, and how, to separate the art from the artist.

By now, filmgoers are accustomed to making those mental accommodations for filmmakers whose private lives become news, whether they’re deciding to see a new movie by Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. (In fact, Gibson premiered his new “Hacksaw Ridge” at the Venice Film Festival to an enthusiastic response.)

But the calculus could be harder for Parker. Not only does he star in “The Birth of a Nation” as Nat Turner – appearing in nearly every frame for most of the movie – but its plot, with themes of sexual violence and exploitation, is poised to chime uneasily with the accusations against him.

The charges against Parker and his longtime friend Jean McGianni Celestin have always been part of the public record of his life, if little explored until now: A fellow student maintained that the two men, collegiate wrestlers at the time, had sex with her despite the fact that she was too inebriated to give consent. Parker was found not guilty; Celestin was convicted but won the right to a new trial on appeal, and prosecutors decided not to retry him.

But Parker’s attempts to address this matter in 2016 have been nearly as troubling as the original allegations. His initial interviews with the Hollywood trade press, given so that he could get ahead of the story before awards season got underway, veered from tone-deaf to startlingly insensitive – especially after it came to light that the young woman in question took her own life in 2012.

Earlier, she had sued the school for not protecting her from what she said was a harassment campaign that Parker and Celestin led against her.

“I was thinking about myself,” Parker admitted to Ebony reporter Britni Danielle regarding those earlier interviews. “And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman.”

With Fox Searchlight’s strongest marketing hooks – a prolonged Oscar campaign and Parker’s personal appearances on behalf of the film – now effectively scuttled, it remains to be seen whether the misgivings that have built up around the filmmaker can be banished, or at least managed, enough for the film to have a viable life when it opens in theaters Friday.

Mark O’Meara, owner of the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia, is more eager than ever to play the film, which he booked after seeing it this summer. “I feel bad for (Nate Parker), I feel worse for the woman, but you have to look at the body of work,” he said, adding that the film, set in Virginia, will hold particular interest for local viewers.

Similarly, Susan Koch, executive director of the Middleburg Film Festival, is still hoping that she’ll be able to show the film, even a few weeks after it opens. “We thought it would be a good film to have a dialogue around,” she said. “We would position it as a Sunday afternoon film with dialogue – not a dialogue about (Parker), but about the story.”

In the film, Parker portrays the vicious rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry, at the hands of a “slave-catcher,” as well as another white man’s sexual assault of an enslaved servant, as the chief incidents that incited Turner and his fellow rebels to take up arms against the plantation owners of Southampton County, Virginia.

Parker might have appropriated his title in a pointedly subversive nod to D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist 1915 movie of the same name but, much like its forebear, his “Birth of a Nation” will present viewers with a challenge above and beyond merely separating the art from the artist.

Instead, the audience will be asked to sit with the contradictions and overlapping agonies raised by a film that, because of its content and the personal story of its creator, inflames the most tender touch points of contemporary American culture – from racism and sexism, to rape, entitlement, consent, sexual violence on campus, trauma, contested history and the possibility of personal and societal redemption.

Graphically violent and handsomely photographed, if at times crudely on-the-nose, “The Birth of a Nation” can’t help but invite reflections on Parker’s off-screen persona and behavior, whether the viewer believes that’s he’s being unjustly persecuted for a crime for which he was acquitted, or that he’s in a dubious moral position to hold others accountable for a country’s unresolved past when he’s had such trouble confronting his own.

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