A DIRECTOR’S PAST SHOULD NOT DETRACT FROM A FILM’S MESSAGE
When “The Birth of a Nation” made its world premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, the picture was almost immediately proclaimed as a contemporary masterpiece in both a technical filmmaking scope as well as a history lesson for one of the most least-talked about historical events. The Nate Parker’s new film depicts the 1831 Nat Turner Slave Rebellion. The rebellion itself only lasted two days and resulted in the deaths of over 50 slave owners as well as over a 100 slaved and non-slaved African-Americans.
The film made such an effective impact at the Sundance Film Festival that it received a unanimous standing ovation before being sold for theatrical distribution to Fox Searchlight Pictures for a record $17.5 million. Fox Searchlight, a company renowned for its Academy Award-winning films, will release the film come Oscar season and the feature is expected to make equal waves amongst critics and audiences.
Parker, the film’s Writer, Director, and lead actor, said in an interview at Sundance, “Usually, we learn about slavery through the context of endurance or resilience but never through resistance or determination.” Not much is known about Nat Turner before the rebellion and even the information we know of him afterwards is kept to a minimum. Such an absorbingly relevant kind of story deserves a big screen interpretation, but has yet to receive one in the years since film has gone into prominence. Maybe the inevitable controversy was deemed too overwhelming enough to warrant one— and the film certainly has had its controversies, however, not in regards to the content of the film itself.
Both of “The Birth of the Nation” Writers, Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin were Penn State students when they were involved in a rape investigation in 1999. Celestin was later charged for the incident and sentenced to six months while Parker’s charges were dropped entirely after a previous relationship with the victim was brought to light. Eventually Celestin’s charges were dropped as well in 2005 after the victim refused to testify again on appeal.
To say that this incident has overshadowed, the film would be somewhat of an understatement since many film critics and activists have sworn off not only seeing the film, but promoting it in any form of fashion. Reverend Al Sharpton, in contrast to some of the other vocally concerned critics, has blamed the media for the sudden upstage. This was a known part of Parker’s history at the very beginning of his acting career— even being on his Wikipedia page.
According to Reverend Sharpton, “Now, all of a sudden, they rediscover what they already knew. The way you kill the message is to try to smear the messenger.” Which brings light another question: Can we separate one’s personal life with one’s professional career? The truth of the matter is that the story of Nat Turner is way too significant to be defined by Parker’s troubled past. The “Birth of a Nation” co-star Gabrielle Union, a victim of sexual violence herself, has been vocal of the actions of the film’s director and lead actor, but has gone on to praise the powerful message of the film— not the filmmakers.
Same reason why I am such an avid fan of the film career of Roman Polanski. I admire his filmmaking because I can separate what he has accomplished behind the camera versus what he has been going through in his personal life. Polanski has been a fugitive of the United States following a sexual abuse scandal in 1977. We can all afford to distinguish a fundamental difference between what an individual has done in their past and how that does not elucidate what they produce on a professional level.
Even Parker, a devout Christian who, just like Nat Turner, preaches at many masses, has stated that he is no longer the same man he was back in his Penn State days. Something that many of his friends and colleagues have verified— depicting him as an artist who is now married with four daughters.
I’m very much looking forward to “The Birth of a Nation” when it is eventually released next month. I’m looking forward to the film not only as the history and film devotee that I am, but also because the film promotes a discussion about race and injustice of all ethnicities— not about college campus violence— that warrants another conversation entirely.