Thursday, August 18, 2016
The skeletons of Nate Parker
It probably goes without saying that a private citizen has a greater entitlement to privacy than a public figure. It stands to reason that a person running for president of the United States has less privacy than a person running for president of the school council, who has less privacy than a person running for president of the local chapter of the Society of Dungeonmasters. In fact, libel laws are primarily in place to protect private citizens. The standard of proof for libel against a public figure is much, much higher.
The question, then, is whether Nate Parker's increase in public stature justifies the increased scrutiny into his past that has landed upon him this week. Are the skeletons in his closet our business? Are they relevant to his current standing in the community, both the entertainment community and the community at large?
The response to this week's news rankles me, and during the writing of this post I hope to articulate why.
First some background.
Nate Parker has been in the public eye for a good ten years. As an actor, his first credited role was in 2004 on Cold Case, but I first became aware of him in Denzel Washington's terrific film The Great Debaters in 2007. As he was one of the film's three leads -- along with Washington and Jurnee Smollett -- it could be argued that it was at this point that he really became a public figure.
Most people would still not have known who Nate Parker was until the buzz about him at this year's Sundance Film Festival became deafening. At Sundance this year, Parker premiered his slave epic The Birth of a Nation, which got snapped up for a record distribution deal and immediately announced itself as an Oscar frontrunner. Not only is the film supposedly very good, but it also would be a very convenient film to fete in a year following the controversy over the lack of African-American nominees at last year's Oscars. Nate Parker is both the director and star of this film, playing the similarly named Nat Turner.
Of course, most people still wouldn't know who Parker was because most people don't follow the news out of Sundance.
Most people become aware of someone when a rape allegation surfaces.
Yesterday for the first time I learned that Parker was tried and acquitted of rape 17 years ago when he was in college at Penn State. The facts of the case seem to be that Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on Birth) had sex with a classmate when she was unconscious. Parker had had consensual sex with the girl previously, and he insisted that this episode was consensual as well. As Celestin had no such prior relationship with her, that seems to have been the deciding factor in why Celestin was convicted and jailed for six months while Parker was acquitted. That's a bit flabbergasting and I don't know that a jury today would make that same decision, but in 1999, that's what they decided.
Some of this may have been known before. I'm not sure.
The "new" information -- though it's at least four years old -- is that the victim in this case died in 2012 of what seems to have been suicide. The victim's brother, who has come forward, said it was the end of a long line of pain for his sister that started with the rape. She dropped out of school not long after and he says her life began a downward spiral at that point. Him speaking out is what has brought this news to light. Apparently, Parker did not know until just recently that she had died.
My first reactions to this news:
1) Rape is a terrible crime. We should not tolerate its practictioners, who should be jailed for decades. People guilty of rape should be shunned in proper society.
2) Rape is also, sometimes, an ambiguous crime. Completely false accusations of rape are pretty uncommon, but it is a crime that tends to be characterized by its gray areas, gray areas the laws have been trying very hard to define over decades of increasing enlightenment on the topic. Whether a person is truly capable of giving their consent at a particular juncture is something that can't help but be open to interpretation. I mean, if a person is asleep, that's rape. But how confident can you be litigating degrees of grogginess?
3) Seventeen years ago? How young was he when that happened? He was 19. He was an adult. He is fully responsible for his behavior. But that doesn't mean he wasn't an idiotic dickhead with a lot of maturing to do. Maturing he may have done in the ensuing years.
4) The woman committed suicide thirteen years after she was raped. The rape may be related. Her life might have been ruined by this rape. But it may not be related.
5) Why is this information only coming out now? Oh yeah, it's because The Birth of a Nation is coming out.
This last is the most problematic piece of this whole puzzle. The timing. Timing that will give conspiracy theorists fits if they let it.
There is a heavily charged racial atmosphere in the United States right now. We see it at the Oscars and we see it in the streets. Not only are black people being killed in the streets by police officers, but they are not getting nominated for Oscars. Sorry, it's probably a tasteless joke to present that false equivalency. But I'm writing a movie blog so I'm focusing on the Oscar part right now, as the slightly less depressing representation of American racial norms.
In the very week that Oscar nominations are announced, a film debuts at Sundance that drops everyone's jaws. It's called The Birth of a Nation and it's fucking great. Making it even better is that it is directed by a black man, a guy who might be both a directing and an acting nominee, depending on how good his performance is. #Oscarssowhite "solved," right?
Not so fast.
This week information comes out that Parker was once acquitted of rape, and the details of the case are now being retried in the court of public opinion. The tragic fact that the victim subsequently committed suicide has been correlated to the alleged rape by a person (her brother) who is hardly disinterested in this matter. That's not to discount the fact that he may be correct, but it was 13 years later and a lot of other bad shit can happen in 13 years. This trial was 17 years ago and has been public record, but now it is deemed to be relevant because a man has made a movie with a certain moral rectitude implied in its subject matter, which is therefore considered to be hypocritical because he was once tried for rape. Never mind that he was acquitted. By his own admission he has regrets about what went down, so something sketchy happened, and that's bad enough.
And it is bad enough, probably. But what bearing does that have on the value of The Birth of a Nation? Especially at a time when Hollywood so desperately needs a voice like Parker's to make a movie that might mean so much to so many people?
It would be a little easier to see the correlation if Parker had made a movie about violence against women, and then it was revealed that he might have raped someone. But that's not what Parker's movie is about. It's about a slave revolt that had a very significant impact on American history.
Is it worth boycotting the movie just because Parker's not a good guy? Or was not always a good guy? Determining how much a person's past contributes to how we view them now is always a subject of debate, which gets into concepts of the possibility of changing one's ways and repenting. "Once a rapist, always a rapist" is probably a reasonable characterization of most people guilty of rape, but what if Parker says he was never a rapist? And a jury upheld that claim? Are we just going to throw that out because the details of his case are anything but clear? And isn't part of them being anything but clear at least the possibility that he did not actually rape this person?
Part of the reason why Parker's past is considered relevant to this movie is that its rollout is supposed to involve Parker going out to churches and speaking on issues of social justice. I can understand why that plan is now complicated, and maybe should be scuttled.
But the fact that there is now a taint associated with the whole movie has implications that are far greater than this movie itself. If this movie doesn't get nominated -- it doesn't have to win, but it at least has to get nominated -- then it will be impossible to tell if it's because people found Parker's past indiscretions too questionable to stomach, or if the allegedly racist tendencies of the Academy played a role. If you were a conspiracy theorist, you'd contend that this movie is being sabotaged.
And it already looks like people are talking about boycotting it. I only even became aware of Parker's accusations because the story was posted in my Flickcharters Facebook group, where the poster said this was reason enough for him not to support the movie. At least one commenter agreed. Several others name-checked the likes of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski in trying to separate the art from the artist, and I myself mentioned Mel Gibson. I suppose there are certain artists who could be so despicable that I would not watch their movies, but none of the people mentioned in this paragraph, not to mention Parker, are so unambiguously guilty of something that is so unambiguously awful that I would write them off completely. I suppose even if they were unambiguously awful, I would still consider seeing their movies because I'm a critic and that's what I do.
I should pause here to acknowledge that it's problematic to even refer to Parker's past as "skeletons in his closet." Usually when we talk about that, we talk about a drinking problem, a gambling problem, an affair that if made public would cause embarrassment. We don't talk about things like rapes and murders as "skeletons" -- it tends to underappreciate their seriousness. However, if you've been accused of one of these things and found not guilty, it does become a bit more like the so-called "skeleton" I'm mentioning here. If we are to believe that someone is not guilty of a crime, we must believe that he or she is 100% not guilty. And just being accused of a crime in which you were found not guilty is indeed a bit more like a skeleton. I wanted to address that, in case my wording makes anyone uncomfortable.
This whole thing makes us uncomfortable. And it should. We're talking about serious issues here, issues of life and death and personal safety and integrity of character. And we're also talking about sticky political issues. In a weird way this has the unfortunate consequence of possibly becoming a case of the rights of a race vs. the rights of a gender. You might see African-Americans on Parker's "side" and women "against" him. Which is really a shame, because both are marginalized groups whose issues have not been historically taken seriously enough.
I don't know that I've gotten any closer to a clear perspective on this week's events involving Nate Parker. I certainly don't like that he may have raped a woman and there may have been a direct chain of events that led to her suicide. But I also believe a person is innocent until proven guilty, and Parker was never proven guilty. The possibility that he behaved criminally toward a helpless victim is not enough for me to swear off what may end up becoming one of the most symbolically important movies to come out in the last five years. Even if it's a likelihood that he behaved criminally. He definitely behaved dishonorably, but he was cleared of actual guilt.
And the thing is, he admits he behaved dishonorably. Parker penned an open letter in the wake of this news that discusses his feelings on the topic. In it he says the following:
"I am filled with a profound sorrow."
"I look back on that time and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom."
"I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name."
"I have never run from this period in my life and I never will. Please don't take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement."
Nate Parker is trying. He wants to show us he's a better man at 36 than he was at 19. He's admitting some guilt without fully saying he was culpable. He's showing the maturity that he said he needed to acquire when he was that rambunctious, dumb, undoubtedly careless, possibly cruel 19-year-old.
You don't have to forgive Nate Parker. You don't have to like Nate Parker. Just don't use these as reasons not to watch his movie.