After director Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation was met with euphoric praise (and not one but two standing ovations) at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2016, critics immediately thought ahead to the 2017 award season, expecting Parker’s film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to secure several prizes at the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and, most impressively, the Oscars. The festival concluded with Nate Parker’s team signing a Sundance record $17.5 million dollar deal with Fox Searchlight, victors of an all-night bidding war that included Netflix, Sony, Paramount, and others. Rappers Nas, Lil Wayne, 2 Chainz, Gucci Mane, Trey Songz, and Ne-Yo even prepared an “inspired by” album to accompany the film’s release. At Sundance 14 months ago, film enthusiasts expected African American director Parker, who also produced, starred, and wrote the movie, to remedy the Academy Awards’ recent lack of minority representation. Yet, with the 2017 installations of the Golden Globes, BAFTAs, and Oscars now behind us, The Birth of a Nation received neither awards nor even a single nomination.
A great movie has gone unrecognized. Not because of acting, not because of cinematography, not because of execution, but because of Nate Parker’s past, a past that should not have overshadowed the work of art he spent six years producing.
In 1999, Nate Parker, then a 19-year-old wrestler at Penn State University, and his roommate Jean Celestin, who is also black and co-wrote The Birth of a Nation, were accused of raping a white female student. Parker and Celestin both admitted to having sex (which they believed was consensual) with the classmate and were brought to trial shortly after charges were pressed. Facing fifty years in prison, Parker was acquitted by the jury, while Celestin’s conviction of sexual assault was overturned after an appeal.
As The Birth of a Nation and its creators received increasing publicity throughout 2016, the 1999 sexual assault trial was reexamined with heightened interest. Devastating news surfaced that the accuser took her own life in 2012, turning sentiment against Parker and his film. Simultaneously however, a group of Penn State alumni collectively released a statement defending Nate Parker’s innocence, noting he had been acquitted by a jury that was 11/12ths white. The truth remains cloudy and too difficult to decipher, as everyone’s version of the episode seems to differ on important details. As public debate over the trial grew and The Birth of a Nation neared its October release date, Parker continued to profess his innocence, refusing to apologize in a 60 Minutes interview with Anderson Cooper: “I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated. I was proven innocent. I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.”
The Birth of a Nation has been tainted by the attention on Parker’s 1999 trial. A sizeable contingent of the film community pledged not to see it, hoping to make a statement. Their success, evidenced by abysmal performance in the box office and the cancellation of international releases in Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Austria, and Latin America, reveals that our society, unable to forgive, judges an individual by one action. Rape and sexual assault are certainly not accusations to take lightly; however, should these offenses define the rest of his life or determine the worth of a movie he creates? By refusing to watch The Birth of a Nation, Americans also refuse to acknowledge one’s potential to grow from sin, crime, and wrongdoing.
Race plays a role in the public demise of Parker and his film. In his 1940 novel Native Son, author Richard Wright comments on the situation of black protagonist Bigger Thomas, who is fleeing authorities after accidentally murdering a white girl: “To hint that he had committed a sex crime was to pronounce the death sentence; it meant a wiping out of his life even before he was captured; it meant death before death came, for the white men who read those words would at once kill him in their hearts.” Though so much has changed in 77 years, I can’t help but picture Nate Parker when I read those lines about Bigger Thomas. After all, why did Casey Affleck, a white actor and star of Manchester by the Sea, emerge unharmed and in possession of a shiny “Best Actor” Oscar after 2010 claims of sexual harassment (granted, a less serious offense than assault) resurfaced before awards season?
As all Belmont Hill students know, Just Mercy author Bryan Stevenson criticizes judges for losing hope in the potential of clients to rehabilitate themselves, to add something more to the world. Instead, such judges choose to eternally imprison individuals who have done wrong, preventing them from ever having a chance to positively impact society. As quickly as Parker was celebrated as a budding superstar, he was just as quickly banished, locked away as Hollywood’s great shame. Although no one should downplay the severity of sexual assault accusations, it is important to consider one of Stevenson’s most important lessons from Just Mercy: “Every one of us is more than the worst thing we’ve done.”