This was supposed to be the season of Nate Parker’s triumph. Parker wrote, produced, directed, and starred in Birth of a Nation, a movie about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. Not only was the film generating Oscar buzz on the strength of Parker’s work (it sold for a record amount after early festival screenings), but Parker’s own personal story represents a story of a kid who beat the odds, a man who overcame systematic oppression and ancient prejudices to rise to the heights of Hollywood.
In college, Parker (a black man) was accused of raping a white woman — exactly the kind of accusation that led to countless lynchings in the old south and has long stoked the racial fears of bigots far and wide. He faced an overwhelmingly white jury with his future on the line and was acquitted — a miraculous result. Parker is a social justice warrior’s dream, a man who overcame the worst of bigotries and now shines his bright lights on America’s brutal, white supremacist roots.
No, wait. That’s not the narrative. Times have changed, and the alleged campus rape crisis is now more important than the campus race crisis, and Parker — despite his acquittal — is under fire not just for his old criminal charge but also for not speaking with appropriate sensitivity about the incident. His accuser, sadly, committed suicide in 2012 (thirteen years after the incident), and many feminists take it as an article of faith not just that Parker contributed to her death but that he’s likely guilty of the underlying rape. After all, awareness has been raised, and consent has been redefined — especially when alcohol is involved. (The woman had claimed that she was too drunk to consent.)
Writing in the New Yorker, Jeannie Suk Gersen lays out the tensions:
Social-justice movements today are putting pressure on an overly punitive justice system, which disproportionately affects black men, from accusation and arrest to conviction and sentencing. But that pressure has not been equally applied to the treatment of sexual assault because of increasing awareness of the historical disregard for rape victims, including women of color. There is a rising consensus that, when a woman says that she was raped, there are almost no circumstances in which it is acceptable to challenge her account. In a column about Parker’s case in the Times last month, Roxane Gay expressed the common assumption that a woman who later says she was too drunk to consent should be believed, “because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn.”
Gersen (who’s always worth reading) rightly wonders at the justice of not letting a man who was “accused and acquitted” of moving on from the crime — especially when, as in Parker’s case, he’s apparently lived a model life since the trial. But Parker’s case isn’t about justice at all. It’s about social justice, and social justice demands that writers, directors, actors and anyone else involved in the media industry not only produce the right kind of art, they also have to have the right biography and the right attitudes. In other words, it isn’t just the movie that has to be worthy of the Oscar, it’s the man as well.
But identity politics is terrible at defining justice, and it’s just as terrible at defining art. I’m looking forward to seeing Birth of a Nation. I generally enjoy historical films, and I hear from people I trust that the film is thought-provoking. I’ve long studied Nat Turner’s rebellion, and it will be interesting to see if Parker whitewashes or excuses the bloodier elements of the uprising (on either side.)
As for Parker himself, I don’t know the man, but a jury who examined all the evidence and saw witnesses cross-examined under oath determined that he was not guilty of rape. If anything, he’s become a poster boy for the feminist notion that all women must be believed, and no man is truly innocent. He can be forgiven if and only if he mouths the proper platitudes. I don’t know what truly happened the night of the alleged crime, but neither do his critics. I’d submit that the best course of action is to withhold judgment on the man, watch his movie, and let the art speak for itself.