Columns, Opinion

TENTINDO: “Birth of a Nation” controversy is opportunity for conversation

At the Toronto International Film Festival, actor and director Nate Parker and the cast and crew of “The Birth of a Nation” distanced the movie from Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin’s rape trial in 2001.

While the stars of the movie attempted to redirect attention away from the filmmakers’ pasts, the media and public continue asking questions about the accusation and trial. However, separating a controversial artist from his work is an easy way to ignore a conversation that deserves to be held.

Parker and Celestin were accused of rape in 1999 by a fellow student at Pennsylvania State University. Parker was acquitted and Celestin’s original conviction was later overturned. The accuser, who remained anonymous, committed suicide in 2012.

“The Birth of a Nation,” the story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, won top honors at the Sundance Film Festival and was acquired for $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight Pictures, breaking the festival’s previous record.

Parker, who directed and stars as Turner, is debuting his movie at a time of intense debate about the history of racism in America, and he embraces this discourse head-on. The title alone acknowledges the United States’ deep history with institutionalized racism, as it shares a name with the first movie to be shown at the White House, a 1915 silent film about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

However, the movie has been making more headlines regarding sexual assault on campus, a controversial issue the film’s producers are less eager to discuss.

It is rational for those involved with the movie to direct attention to their artistic efforts, and it is also rational for the media and public to inquire into the dramatic past of two of the film’s creators. The entertainment world has a sordid history of confronting controversial characters, with many being shunned from the industry while many more have been welcomed back with only a slap on the wrist.

Parker is trying to distance himself from his past, but will the public keep his history separate from his movie? An acquittal does not necessarily mean the public will ignore the accusation, as has been the case with many other public figures. It is very likely that audiences will see “The Birth of a Nation” with a complicated image of its star.

“The Birth of a Nation” has the potential to be an incredibly important and successful movie, but the media and the public will have a hard time focusing on its message if the real-world figures will not address their history. Parker’s statements on the subject have largely been dismissive, such as one he gave to Variety when headlines re-emerged.

Publicly addressing a tough moment in one’s life is undoubtedly uncomfortable, but Parker has a platform to do more than dismiss the inquiries into his past. Ignoring the questions will not only increase the public’s curiosity, but it will further take away from the movie’s message.

What further complicates the controversy is the film industry’s challenges with diversity. Audiences and industry professionals have critiqued the lack of diversity in recent films, especially those nominated for major awards. “The Birth of a Nation” was initially seen as a welcome reprieve with a majority black cast and black filmmaker.

The film industry is known to take few chances, especially recently. Audiences have complained about the onslaught of remakes and sequels for a few years now, but Hollywood is worried to veer too far beyond storylines they are confident will succeed.

It is unfair that so much rides on one movie, but for minority populations in an industry that is wary to change, the pressure to succeed goes beyond profit. Movies needs to prove a point that diverse filmmakers can be successful and award-winning. This may seem obvious and unnecessary, but not to all.

For some, especially in the film industry, Parker’s success could be the step needed to change the way the system operates. Risking that progressive change is nerve-racking and an issue not faced for white filmmakers. The more controversial Woody Allen and Mel Gibson continue to make movies with much less public outcry. It is a reflection of racism that Parker must address these questions when other filmmakers continue to create. But with Parker in more headlines for ignoring questions he risks damaging “The Birth of a Nation” by refusing to comment.

It may be easier to ignore Parker’s involvement (and therefore his past) and embrace the movie for its social commentary, but recognizing the complexities of a public figure allows for greater discourse. Parker’s story ties in many divisive issues, and having an awareness of every aspect of this movie, including the film’s creator and star, is important.

“The Birth of a Nation” sparks a necessary conversation about racism and its entanglement in American history. Nate Parker sparks a necessary conversation about the silence and emotional ramifications of campus sexual assault cases.

Both conversations need to be hosted but both conversations are frequently silenced. Silencing an opportunity for a national conversation brings no justice.

It may seem unnecessary for a man found not guilty to address the charges he faced surrounding sexual assault, but in order to get audiences to focus on our collective history, Parker should address his own.

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