The Birth of a Nation: One Step Forward, Two Steps Back

Back in April I posted about an upcoming film, The Birth of a Nationthat is coming to theaters this year.  I thought then, and still do now, that the movie comes at a much needed time as the country struggles to come to terms with its current racial dilemma. Additionally, I was excited at the prospect of a movie which covers a time and topic in history that is often overlooked; slave rebellions. That was before Gabrielle Union’s op-ed about Nate Parker’s rape allegations grabbed my attention. 

For those of you that do not know, Nate Parker is the writer, director, producer, and actor in the upcoming film. He’s been in a few other films such as The Red Tails and The Great Debaters. His most recent film The Birth of a Nation, a historical drama loosely based on the Nat Turner slave uprising in 1831, has heads turning. By all accounts, the movie did extremely well at the Sundance Film Festival. It won the grand jury prize and the audience award for dramatic American features. The film is set to be released October 7th this year. As the popularity of the movie grew this year, as well as the anticipation of its release, so too did a number of scandals surrounding its director and writer Nate Parker.

One such scandal involved his rather homophobic arguments. Parker sat in for an interview with BET in 2014 which somehow got on the topic of gay black male roles in cinema. Ebony reported his comments.

that in an effort to “preserve the Black man,” he will, among many things, never play a gay character. Indeed, sounding like a Black Israelite or any like-minded bigot who guises Black pride under the thinly veiled covers of homophobia on 125th street in Harlem on a busy Sunday afternoon, Parker criticized Hollywood for essentially feminizing the Black man on camera. Parker complained about Hollywood offering Black men roles that requires dresses and duct tape – a legitimate critique – though Parker took it one step further when he said Hollywood also offers Black men roles that consist of “men with questionable sexuality.”

Nate Parker

The contents of this interview have been widely circulated, even though BET took the interview down off of their website.

In addition to accusations of homophobia, Parker has been plagued by rape allegations originating from his 1999 trial (You can read about the event in its entirety at the Daily Beast. I will warn you though, it is as graphic as it is tragic). This escalated when it became common knowledge that the victim in the tragic affair committed suicide in 2012. So much so, that Parker finally broke silence on the issue in a one on one interview with Ebony In response to a question about what Parker knew about consent, he had this to say.

To be honest, not very much. It wasn’t a conversation people were having. When I think about 1999, I think about being a 19-year-old kid, and I think about my attitude and behavior just toward women with respect objectifying them. I never thought about consent as a definition, especially as I do now. I think the definitions of so many things have changed.

For starters, I’m pretty sure the conversation about consent has taken place on college campuses for a longer time than Nate Parker is willing to give credit for. Additionally, how has the definition of consent changed? It may have changed from his perspective, but I seriously doubt the definition has changed for women since 1999. A lot of the interview goes much like this quote, Parker’s continued misunderstanding of consent led to some questionable acts of which he, by admission, would not do today. Later in the interview, Parker also addressed his homophobic comments.

I said some comments in 2014 and regardless of the actual words, in the same way conversations around consent have changed, conversation around homosexuality and LGBT…I’m continuously learning more and more. Five years ago, two years ago, ten years ago…just like some people think racism is if you say the n-word, so homophobia is if you call someone [he abruptly ended the sentence.] The fact that I said I wouldn’t wear a dress, or that I’m not interested in gay roles, I can see now that was being exclusionary. It was being insensitive, and it was being homophobic. And guess what? I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everyone who ever read similar comments or just got wind that something was said. I’m growing in my understanding in my relationships with [the] LGBT [community]. I had to ask people I know like, is this homophobic? A couple people said yeah. And I was like, oh.

I just seems like Parker is doing a lot to argue from a point of ignorance on a variety of issues without having the actual empathy to give a sincere apology. His statements to Ebony have done little to silence the growing condemnation of his actions seventeen years ago. A few days after Parker’s interview, Gabrielle Union wrote an op-ed for the LA Times concerning the rape allegations. 

Gabrielle Union

In the stirring article Union talks about her history with sexual violence, having been raped at gun point in the back of a Payless Shoe Store. In the article, she equates her horrific experience with the events surrounding Parker’s rape allegations in 1999. As Union states, “Different roads circling one brutal, permeating stain on our society.” Union’s article is a condemnation of what she calls “ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture.” This is what she had to say specifically about the allegations against Parker.

As important and ground-breaking as this film is [The Birth of a Nation], I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said “no,” silence certainly does not equal “yes.” Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a “no” as a “yes” is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital.

This is a pretty cutting and damning statement. Quite frankly, she is acknowledging that rape took place as Parker never received any type of consent. (Parker claimed claims that he went off of body language. If you read the Daily Beast article about the trial, you will find out that the victim was very inebriated that night. The defense accused her of being an alcoholic, the old argument that the event is the victim’s fault, while at the same time arguing later that she was not too drunk to give consent.) The only issue I have with Union’s article, and I hate to have one, is that she redirects her condemnation off of Parker and on to society as a whole and the victims.

In her article at the Huffington Post, Sil Lai Abrams points out that Union gives Parker a pass when she redirects her attention away from him and onto the victims and society. Abrams states that”[i]n her [Union’s] paragraph outlining the various types of survivors who remain silent about the crimes committed against us, Union essentially asks that we focus our attention on the victims of sexual assault – not the perpetrators.” After reading the Abrams’s take on Union’s article, I can see why she would feel this way. Union in the same breadth states emphatically that Parker committed rape by having sex without consent, and then retreats to what Abrams calls the “well, we don’t know because we weren’t there argument,” when Union says this:

 Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago, after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcript, I still don’t actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room.

Union’s article grabbed my attention when I saw it online. I had no prior knowledge of Parker’s rape accusations. I wanted to fall in line with a lot of what Gabrielle had to say about rape culture which permeates society. Something I still know she is correct about. But, after reading Abrams response at HuffPost,  I have a few issues with what Union has to say. As well intentioned as her words are, I wonder if those words will help or if they will give solace to the victims Union argues we should focus on. Abrams, a victim of sexual violence, certainly does not seem to think so. Reading back over Union’s words, I came to grips with this statement.

…But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize.

I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence. To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary.

I’m sorry Gabrielle, but I disagree. I don’t see this film as an opportunity to educate and inform. In this film, we can see Parker act, we can see Parker direct, we can see Parker write the movie, we can see Parker sell the rights to the movie for $17.5 million, and we can see Parker make millions more off of its theatrical release. By many accounts, the film is a shoe in for Academy Award nominations, and given the material content of the movie, it will likely win many as well. By seeing The Birth of Nation, we are not addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture: we are rewarding it. We are rewarding it when we talk about a swimmer’s attributes over his rape conviction, a conviction which garnered Brock Turner a punishment of 6 months, released after 3. We are rewarding rape culture when David Becker is allowed to enjoy his “college experience,” rather than suffer the punishment he should rightly receive. Quite frankly, we are rewarding Nate Parker if we follow your advice and go see this movie. Despite my previous excitement for such a historical film at a much needed time, I won’t reward Nate Parker. In Abrams’s words,

We can do better. Union can do better. One can choose to hold Parker accountable (such as opting not to see the film) and challenge rape culture. They are not mutually exclusive. In fact, I argue that by doing both, society is sending an even larger message against the very system of male privilege, entitlement, and toxic masculinity that Union and Parker state we should be taking a stand against. By not seeing Birth of a Nation, the message will be sent that if a rapist manages to skate a conviction based on a technicality, that society will hold you accountable instead.

Need help? In the U.S., call 1-800-656-HOPE for the National Sexual Assault Hotline.

One comment

  1. I liked your post.

    It seems to me that there’s a real struggle in underrepresented communities to lift their voices in criticism, even if absolutely correct and justified, because it immediately sets up the entire community for scapegoating. One exceptional black person doesn’t change the stereotype for all, but one criminal black person reinforces ages of prejudice…

    I can see why people feel the need to protect art, even by horrible people, when their communities’ art rarely gets the attention it deserves…

    I hope that changes. I hope we realize there are plenty of talented writers, actors, producers etc. ready, willing, and more than capable to tell those diverse stories, and audiences ready to experience those stories without giving a rapist the floor…and protecting, preserving his spot, or rewarding his unforgivable act.

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