Sin, Cinema, and the Complicated Case of “The Birth of a Nation”

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (Elliot Davis)
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation (Elliot Davis)

I was there when The Birth of a Nation premiered, and I’m still trying to figure out what to feel.

I was in the audience on January 25, when The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival.

The Eccles Theater was packed. I had to sit in the balcony. I confess that at the time, I had only a dim sense of who the film’s writer, director, and star Nate Parker was, not having seen his starring turn in Beyond the Lights. But I could tell the hum of excitement was unusual.

As has been widely reported, the film received not one but two standing ovations, one before it even started. Some people have taken this as an indication that everyone in the room was dying to find a savior in the wake of the disastrous #OscarsSoWhite nominations just a week earlier — and that may be so.

But after the film, Parker called everyone onto the stage who’d worked on the film. Typically at Sundance, directors bring up the cast and other “above the line” people—writers, producers, maybe a costume designer if you’re lucky — but this was a crowd of delighted people standing on stage, celebrating, and we wanted to celebrate with them, because it felt like their group project had finally come to fruition.

The horde of people on stage helps partly explain the ovations and the buzz for Birth of a Nation. Some of the joy of Sundance is that many of the people who worked on the film get to be at the premiere: directors, stars, and writers, sure, but also assistant editors and camera guys. If you work on an independent film — typically a thankless job with low pay (if you’re lucky) and no sleep and only a slim hope of distribution — the premiere is a big deal, and if it’s at Sundance, it’s the biggest of deals.

That’s especially true in the case of Birth of a Nation, which famously took years to get to the screen. Parker started the screenplay in 2009 and worked on it partly under a fellowship through the Sundance Institute. He struggled to get it financed, eventually investing $100,000 of his own money before other major investors started to bite. After the premiere, he said from the stage that he was advised not to even try making it, since the subject matter — the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner — wasn’t exactly box office gold.

As happens at festivals, the myth of The Birth of a Nation was rapidly pumped up by overnight chatter on social media and in the film press. That was buoyed by a bidding war from distributors responding to the premiere. I woke up early to news that the film had finally been sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, the highest amount ever paid for a finished film at any film festival in history. Parker did interviews. People wrote Twitter raves. The movie won the festival’s Audience Award and its Grand Jury Prize, outpacing all of the other dramas in competition.

By the time we left Park City, the myth was fully developed: Nate Parker’s passion project, the film he wrote, directed, and starred in, was an Oscar frontrunner in 2017. (Never mind that the ink on the nominations for 2016 was barely dry.)

Sundance created the myth, but it changed

There’s a grim joke about festival goggles, and how when you’re a critic seeing a movie at a festival, you tend to lose perspective, hating it more vehemently or loving it more passionately than you might have in normal circumstances, because you’re seeing three to five movies a day (and writing about them at night), and everything gets a little bleary.

So I couldn’t really remember what I’d written about the film. Last week, as Birth of a Nation finally released in theaters, I went back to my review, worried I’d find festival goggles in effect. I think I escaped the trap. I’d called it “incredibly timely” and a “stunning work of singular vision and passionate political argument,” which it is. I’d also pointed to some of its flaws, and noted that its biggest problem is its valorization of Turner, which approaches, if not outright hurdles, the hagiographic.

But what seemed (and still seems) most important about the film was twofold. First, it illustrated that racism isn’t merely a matter of individual hearts and minds, but also embedded within a system, and that addressing racism requires addressing both.

Second, and this seems extremely important now, in its harrowing tour of the plantations where Turner was forced to preach to quell any rebellions, and then in the uprising (linked visually, if problematically, to the forthcoming Civil War), it told a story about how the Bible is sometimes used to oppress people, and sometimes propels them to seek freedom.

Smash cut forward by eight months: Days before the big Deadline interview about Parker’s 1999 rape trial broke, I got a call that offered me an interview with Parker. At the time I was the chief film critic at Christianity Today, the flagship US evangelical publication founded by Billy Graham, and Parker hadn’t given an interview to the press in months about the film.

I talked to Parker by phone for 20 minutes on Saturday, August 6, and published it the following Thursday. I’d heard through the grapevine that Nate saw his Christian faith as integral to the film, and that’s what we talked about: his interest in telling Turner’s story, racism in America and particularly in Christian America, and what he hoped churchgoing audiences around the country would take away from the film. “I ask your readers or ask my supporters, ‘What kind of Christian are you?’” he said.I asked that at Sundance: ‘Are you a Nat Turner Christian, or are you a Christian like those who hung him and decapitated him and skinned his body and crushed his flesh to grease?’”

The day after the interview, the Deadline article that referenced the story of Parker’s rape allegations during college was published, cracking the whole thing wide open. Parker had been acquitted, but the case was and continues to be both frustrating and exceptionally complicated, especially because it intersects with national soul-searching on matters like race, gender, and sexual assault (particularly on college campuses). And because his co-writer, Jean Celestin, was also indicted in the case, which occurred while the two men were wrestling for Penn State (itself not a bastion of exemplary conduct when it comes to athletics and sexual-assault allegations). Soon, the news surfaced that the two men’s accuser had committed suicide four years earlier. It is, unequivocally, a tragedy.

I struggle with Parker’s “person of faith” statements

It turned out the allegations were known, a fact I saw noted briefly in one place before I did the interview, along with the acquittal — I should have done my homework better. It hadn’t come up in any other interviews about the film after Sundance, either. (Some have said they were aware of the case then, but didn’t want to rain on Parker’s parade. I understand the sentiment, even as I, and I imagine they, wish they had spoken up.)

As the cycle of interviews continued, in which Parker seemed unable to actually apologize for what he’d done years earlier, I cowered a bit and watched from behind parted fingers.

Because what can you say?

I believe sexual assault is a heinous crime that shatters lives, mostly the lives of women. I went to college and teach at a college, and know all too well about the devastatingly common and often confusing epidemic of campus rape. I believe Parker’s accuser, who committed suicide in 2012, was not making things up. I believe Parker probably believes he is right. I believe Parker is sincere in his faith. I think he’s trying to understand.

But I also believe the way he talked about his past over the past few months is morally indefensible. Parker started with the now all-too-familiar line that as a husband and father of five daughters, he’s matured since that time, and told Deadline that the entire experience was “one of the most painful moments in my life,” which must be one of the most ill-advised lines to ever be uttered in an interview like this.

Since then, he’s given a muddled set of interviews in which he doesn’t apologize — unless I’ve missed it, he hasn’t said “I am sorry” once — but says things about having “empathy” for the situation and feeling regret. He’s talked about consent and toxic male culture, but it came off unsatisfying. But he’s also said he was “vindicated” and “proven innocent,”which misrepresents the meaning of acquittal. And, in a statement posted to Facebook after the news about his accuser’s suicide, he wrote:

While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.

This is complicated, especially because as many people have noted (most recently Steve Harvey), Parker and Celestin are both black men, and their accuser was a white woman, and the history of American prejudices against black men accused of raping white women runs very deep.

But this framing, the “as a person of faith” angle, cuts close to the bone, closer than usual in this case. As a person of faith myself, I don’t think “using more wisdom” is a terribly adequate, compassionate, or just way to describe what should have happened here. When I hear Parker say things like, “Are we in the business of headlines or are we in the business of healing?” I get frustrated, because whatever he meant by it, that kind of false dichotomy is what keeps victims in silence.

And without even bringing my religious commitments into it, I think the most troubling thing about all of Parker’s words is that they’re coming from the writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation.

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Alissa Wilkinson

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