Is there a morals clause to anything anymore? The question is relevant when it comes to the upcoming Oscar campaign for Nate Parker, the writer/director/star of The Birth of a Nation, which instantly became a frontrunner in the Oscars race in January and will be released nationwide with great fanfare in October. Parker, it turns out, has a sordid past.
Parker was a student at Penn State when he was acquitted of raping a fellow student with whom he had previously had consensual intercourse. On the night in question, though, the student claimed she did not, indeed could not, consent to sex with Parker and his roommate (and co-author of the script for The Birth of a Nation) Jean Celestin, because she was incapacitated by alcohol at the time. Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault, but the conviction was vacated on appeal. The woman involved in the alleged attack, it was reported this week, later committed suicide.
Parker, in a carefully worded defense he posted on Facebook, brought up the point that the incident occurred a long time ago, in 1999; that he was a teenager at the time; that he was contrite about the role he played; that he was now a committed husband and father of five; that the encounter was consensual; and that he was acquitted. Yet a transcript of a phone conversation between Parker and the woman that surfaced this week makes it clear that, whatever Parker’s status today, and whatever strengths his claims may have had as a matter of law, he is profoundly morally stained by what he did. (“I was so out of it,” the woman stated. “My whole body was numb.”) If I had been a juror in Parker’s case, I would have voted to acquit — it isn’t clear beyond a reasonable doubt that Parker was guilty — but if I were an Oscar voter today I would not vote for The Birth of a Nation, though it is a powerful work.
A work of art may be judged solely on its merits, but Oscars go to people, not objects, and Parker is morally undeserving of so prestigious an award. When The Birth of a Nation premiered to rapturous reviews at January’s Sundance Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was wringing its hands in guilty despair at the widespread (and completely unjustified) campaign to shame it for including no black actors among its 20 nominees. Parker’s film seemed to guarantee that the 2017 Oscars would suffer from no such “blackout.” It’s a strong film, it’s serious, it’s based on historical fact (the Nat Turner–led slave rebellion of 1831), it’s political, it’s angry, and it’s left-wing, all of which would make it a leading contender even excluding the Academy’s terror of being called racist for ignoring black artists.
Yet the film is, in my opinion, not quite good enough to win Best Picture or any other Oscars, and Parker’s role in the alleged rape will probably exterminate the movie’s chances of winning, though I believe it will still get several nominations.
Parker’s defenders will perhaps declare this lack of awards to be racist, bringing up the example of Roman Polanski, the white director who won an Oscar for directing the 2002 Holocaust drama, The Pianist, notwithstanding his even more sordid past — Polanski admitted to unlawful sexual intercourse with a 13-year-old girl he had given Quaaludes to and sodomized in 1977.
Polanski is a vile human being who should never be allowed to set foot in the U.S. again, much less be showered with awards, but the rationalization for Polanski’s acts in Hollywood are many. In the eyes of the morally flexible showbiz community, Polanski’s crime has many mitigating circumstances. First, the young girl in question forgave him and publicly campaigned for Polanski’s U.S.-imposed exile to end; second, Polanski is himself a victim whose wife Sharon Tate was murdered by the Manson Family and whose family was wiped out by the Nazis; third, the act took place in the anything-goes 1970s; fourth, prosecutors reportedly reneged on an initial plea bargain that would have resulted in probation instead of prison time; and fifth, Polanski can be said to have already served a sentence of a kind because he has lived in exile for so long. Moreover, Hollywood believes that Polanski is a cinematic genius, having made Rosemary’s Baby, Knife in the Water and Chinatown, whereas Parker is a first-time filmmaker who may or may not turn out to be a major artist. That The Pianist is a Holocaust film, and an autobiographical one at that, was Polanski’s ultimate trump card; Oscar voters simply cannot get enough of Holocaust films and sometimes overrate their quality as in the case of not only The Pianist but also the maudlin tale The Reader, which won Kate Winslet an Oscar.
For the purposes of law, a person is either convicted or acquitted. But for the purposes of assessing a person’s character, acquittal can mean many different things. It can mean a person had nothing to do with the alleged crime, or that no crime was committed in the first place. At the other end of the spectrum, it can mean that a jury was only, say, 80 percent convinced that the defendant was guilty. Parker’s behavior at Penn State was disgraceful to say the least. If Oscars were restricted to only those persons of unblemished character, we’d probably be lucky to get one Academy Award presentation every ten years or so. Nevertheless, the Oscars should avoid lending their immense prestige to people known to have committed morally rebarbative acts.
— Kyle Smith is a culture critic at Acculturated, where this piece originally appeared. It is reprinted here with permission.