Per the blog post title, email me the Top Ten at email@example.com, thanks. No fair choosing ten films from the same director. Your list should reflect the same diversity we expect from all previous Top Ten lists, ever.
I think it’s time I weighed in on Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation (2016). If you haven’t heard, in January, at Sundance, Lionsgate paid a record $17.5 million to acquire an independent film that tells the story of Nat Turner and his slave rebellion of 1831. The writer-director-star of the film, Nate Parker, and another of its writers, Jean Celestin, were, 17 years ago, accused of raping one of their fellow students at Penn State. Parker was acquitted, but Celestin was convicted, though the conviction was later overturned. The case, which was never a secret, burbled up in the media after Parker gave a confessional interview to Deadline, and afterward various prominent figures declared they would not see the film; the American Film Institute canceled a screening. Oscar pundits moved the film from frontrunner to undoner. Parker has since made a few more statements to the media, none of which apologize or take responsibility for rape; he has said that he only just learned of the 2012 death of the apparent victim.
That account of the scandal/imbroglio is as dispassionate and unbiased as I can be. Now, let’s quote the opinion-makers:
Writing in The New York Times, Roxane Gay wrote that she won’t see the film, and:
We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art. Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be. I recognize that people are complex and cannot be solely defined by their worst deeds, but I can no longer watch “The Cosby Show,” for example, without thinking of the numerous sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Suddenly, his jokes are far less funny.
I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.
Michael Arenceaux agrees:
I’ve wrestled with wanting to monetarily support Parker’s film on that alone because no story is important enough to compromise my humanity. Now that I’ve learned more about Parker’s past, I can confidently say he won’t get a dime from me. No powerful Black narrative should come at the expense of the violation of a woman’s body…And for those ready to pounce, no, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen haven’t suffered professionally, but I want to be better than those before me, not just as willing to look the other way. I know if Parker used less passive language and conveyed more contrition for his past in his interviews then maybe I’d be more willing to see the film. But he wasn’t. He was self-centered, smug, and self-righteous.
Four writers for a Vulture forum sound equally disappointed. Two passages that stood out for me were one by Rembert Browne…
I’ve assumed some men don’t like coming down hard on “he said, she said” crimes between a man and a woman because, somewhere in that brain, there’s a thought that the same thing could happen to them. A “misunderstanding” could lead to that man being next in line, being accused of something. This leads to a situation where, ultimately, one would rather be vague in the present than hypocritical in the future. The truth is: I don’t know Nate Parker, so who am I to fully judge his current character — 17 years is a long time to internally attempt to pay for past sins. But it’s also a long time to reinforce past behavior, a long time to reap the benefits of the power imbalance that aided in his rise to prominence. As individuals, there is no requirement to pick a side in the court of public opinion. But completely staying out of it, while seemingly indifferent and fair is anything but — silence is still a vote of confidence, in favor of Nate Parker.
…and one by Dayna Evans:
Look how much white men get away with in Hollywood without question or consequence. Why do they get the privilege of New York Times editorials? Honors for their humanitarianism? But, maybe the reaction to his case is due in part to the very recent turn toward believing women in cases of sexual assault, something we’ve seen only culturally in the past two or three years since social media became a powerful megaphone…I think we’d be surprised to learn how many bad people we enable by buying tickets to movies, concerts, and tuning into TV. I think the important thing to consider is: When you’re propping up a person who you know has exhibited reprehensible behavior, who are you taking an opportunity away from? It’s a pipe dream, but if we all decided to stop enabling known abusers in art, film, TV, or music, we wouldn’t have so much trouble naming more than five female directors — because in all likelihood, there would suddenly be an abundance of them.
Goldie Taylor, a sexual assault survivor and writer of an Ebony cover story about Bill Cosby’s fall from grace, is planning to see the film. Here she writes:
Do I believe, from the public information I have reviewed, that Parker knew that his alleged victim was so inebriated that she could not consent to sex with one or multiple partners? Yes. Do I believe the revisiting of his long-ago trial now is a grand conspiracy to keep black voices and our stories out of Hollywood? No, but Parker’s newfound prominence has everything to do with it. Do I think we would care about Parker or Cosby’s alleged crimes if not for their fame? Absolutely not.
But ultimately, will I pay my hard-earned dollars to see strong performances by Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, and Gabrielle Union—who is another sexual assault survivor? Yes.
That may well mean I am putting money in Parker’s pockets. Though, unless and until he publicly owns the pain he caused that night in 1999, it will almost certainly be the last time I do so.
In my heart of hearts, I need this film to be successful despite Parker. I do not have it in me to let the legacy of Nat Turner, a man our history books hid from us, die.
If you’re interested in historical parallels to the original Birth of a Nation (1915), which was the first blockbuster, the progenitor of Hollywood, and is often called the most racist movie of all time, Lauren Herold presents them here, and concludes:
Griffith’s film presented an opportunity for an activist organization to build its mobilizing strategies. What will the legacy of Parker’s film be? Will it come to stand as a testament to still-dominant attitudes about sexual assault? Like the 1915 movie, controversy around Parker’s film has sparked a renewed cultural conversation — this time about the value of art produced by alleged abusers. It is too early to say if controversy will be as good for Parker’s ticket sales as it was for Griffith (though it seems to have already tarnished Parker’s reputation considerably). But if today’s feminist and anti sexual violence advocates continue to discuss, debate, decline to support, and protest films created by alleged perpetrators (including Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, and Johnny Depp), cultural conversations about abuse and rape in Hollywood may finally shift from protecting the auteur to exploring what a society free from sexual violence could look like. The original Birth of a Nation controversy as well as these recent outcries show us that it can take decades of activism for new cultural norms to set in, even among supposedly enlightened people — but if protests persist, advocates may eventually be heard.
Probably all of these paid writers had hoped that Parker was going to perform some sort of greater penitence at an announced press conference yesterday at the Toronto International Film Festival. He did not, further infuriating some. He claimed he didn’t want to take away from the people sharing the stage with him. One of those people, Gabrielle Union, recently wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times where she explained:
Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago, after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcript, I still don’t actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room. But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize.
I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence. To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary.
It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation. To reach out to organizations which are working hard to prevent these kinds of crimes. And to support its victims. To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture. And to eventually wipe the stain clean.
Okay. Now. Before I explain why I want your list of Top Ten Movies, let me give my Top Ten reactions to the cognoscenti:
- Fairly certain that it’s unprecedented for a celebrity not directly involved in a case to publicly claim that she read all 700 pages of any trial transcript. When I debate my friends about 9/11 I can’t get them to read seven pages of the official 9/11 Commission Report. And I believe Union. She’s serious. This is serious.
- When Herold says it’s time to “shift from protecting the auteur,” she’s absolutely right, and yet there’s a tremendous irony there: objections of the won’t-see-it crowd are simply auteurism by another name. If the unit production manager of a film (a job that often appears first in closing credit sequences) was once convicted of rape and murder, are you telling me the won’t-see-it crowd wouldn’t see the film? They’re insisting on the director as author, like a book author, despite all evidence that films are collaborative projects. If we were really to attempt Herold’s shift, we would start by assigning less importance to the director/star in the first place. Celestin is little more than a footnote in these stories, and we can imagine why: if we start “blacklisting” based on shared writing credits, where do we draw the line? Back-end points? Above-the-line credits? What if the key grip killed his own daughter?
- Arenceaux and others make a big deal about how they won’t pay for the film, Arenceaux writing that Parker “won’t get a dime from me.” I wonder, though, why some of them aren’t a little clearer about whether they’ll actually see the film. Sorry, but if you’re paid to write about movies, chances are you can generally get free tickets to movies, or free screeners. I’m not reading anything like: “Not only will I not pay for the film, I will refuse to see it even if someone else pays for me to see it.” For people criticizing Parker for failure to cover all the bases, for giving himself an “out,” many are giving themselves quite the out.
- None of these pieces get into the sordid details of the case, and perhaps that’s appropriate. But their surface-level presentation of it is far more damning to Taylor than the “objective” summary I attempted to give you at the outset. There’s no, “I know ____, but I still think…” If you think O.J. did it, you sound more credible if you don’t merely present Marcia Clark’s case, if you instead say “I know the LAPD is racist and cops sometimes plant evidence, but I still think…” In this case, you might say, “I know Parker had agreed-upon, consensual sex with the victim on the night before and the night after the incident, but I still think…”
- Everyone wants Parker to be more penitent, more contrite. I do too. Maybe that’s human nature. But at this point, what would that look like other than Parker apologizing for something he’s sure he didn’t do? How many times in this country’s history has a black man been made to apologize for perceived crimes against a white woman? How much better was the black man’s life afterward? In fairness, these pieces at least mention that sort of historical disparity.
- What these pieces don’t say: from suffrage in the 1860s to O.J. to Obama, there’s a sense in which the black man has always “come first” over the white woman. Yes, that’s horrible. It’s equally horrible that the culture keeps manifesting these zero-sum stories where one has to win and the other has to lose (Obama and Hillary couldn’t both win the 2008 Democratic primary). These redound to the benefit of the white-male patriarchy: hey, you two groups fight for these scraps off my table, and when you’re done, you’ll both be weaker. As tragic and true as that is, it doesn’t mean that Parker has to “lose” to “make up” for other culture battles.
- You often see The Shawshank Redemption listed among people’s favorite films. (More than a million voters made it #1 on imdb’s Top 250.) I wonder, if it had starred Bill Cosby as Red, would all of these writers declare they’re never going to watch it again? Or perhaps I should say, if Morgan Freeman were to start getting accused as Cosby has (not inconceivable; he was in a car accident with a woman who was not his wife), do we send Shawshank down the memory hole? Or is that rule only for new films? Or only directors, not stars? Just curious.
- If it’s not already obvious, I plan to see the new The Birth of a Nation. And yes, I’m merely a white privileged male; take that however you want to take it.
- Rembert Browne, who wrote many Grantland pieces I loved (like “Who Won 2014?”) says here, “one would rather be vague in the present than hypocritical in the future,” yet points out that in this case, silence benefits Parker. Right. Below, Rembert, I’m asking you to break another silence, for similar reasons.
- I feel Evans made the most perspicacious point when she wrote, “I think we’d be surprised to learn how many bad people we enable by buying tickets to movies, concerts, and tuning into TV.” She focuses on knowing; if you didn’t know, how could you help it? And if you do know, why not “blacklist” and let a few more women directors into the canon? I agree 100%, but I don’t believe that Evans, or any of these writers, are truly ready to put themselves out there, to risk the hypocrisy that Browne mentioned. And what I mean by that is:
Has anyone reading this not been asked about his/her favorite film, or films? When you make a living writing about cinema, I happen to know you get that question ten times as often. Top Ten lists are a part of the job description. Many of the biggest critics, your Roger Eberts and Peter Traverses, came/come out with Top Ten lists every year, for that year. Yes, such lists often come with caveats and disclaimers: well, I really wanted to put eleven or twelve, these are in alphabetical order, I may change my mind, la-la-la. You may be happy to learn that this is a disclaimer-friendly space. Nine or ten or eleven films that you think are terrific will be sufficient.
Evans was right to point out that we didn’t automatically believe rape victims even as recently as five years ago. She might have also pointed out, as I have exhaustively documented on many, many other blog posts, that we are in the midst of an even broader cultural shift, which the right calls “PC overreach” and Chris Rock calls “white people being less crazy.” Using lenses of the present to judge the sins of the past is really what this is all about, on every level. Both Birth of a Nations are about that. This post only asks how far you’re prepared to go. For example, if one person stands up and says he feels insulted and oppressed by the name of the state of Washington because George Washington owned slaves, are you ready to rename the state?
Still, you’ve never thought about that, while you have thought about your favorite films. You probably have the DVDs sitting in your house right now. So go ahead, tell me ten of them. And then you know where this is going. I come back and I tell you about the sexual and racial peccadilloes of their directors and stars. We both know you’re going to be smart enough not to include Annie Hall or Braveheart or Chinatown. But you better be careful. Charlie Chaplin married a 16-year-old. Alfred Hitchcock slapped women around. James Cameron drowned them, or almost. So now I’m sure you’ll avoid those three directors. How confident are you in your choices? And I’ll say it one more time: no fair choosing mostly films by the same director. We’ve all seen plenty of Top Ten lists in our time. None of them were nine films by Woody Allen and one by Mel Gibson. I don’t have to tell you that’s ridiculous. But if I’m saying that you can change out films any time, what’s the point? The point is to potentially observe “real time” evolution of taste in the new PC era.
The larger point, of course, is that potential will never be realized, because you won’t respond to this with a Top Ten list. Maybe never again, now that you know I’m watching. Which means that deep down, to Rembert Browne’s point, you’re worried about looking hypocritical in the future. Which means that deep down, you do separate the art from the artist, whether you like it or not. Which means that deep down, you should be judging Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation separately. QED.
As for my Top Ten list, who cares? I never said that I can’t separate art from artist. Responding to my list with “hey, that cinematographer is accused of manslaughter” will only make you look silly; it’s your Top Ten that changes, or doesn’t, based on new revelations, not mine. But okay, to stave off any counter-charges of hypocrisy, here’s maybe not my Official Top Ten, but certainly ten films I love:
- The Lord of the Rings trilogy (if that counts as a film)
- One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest
- Midnight Cowboy
- Europa Europa
- Back to the Future (only the first one)
- Die Hard
- The Incredibles
- The Silence of the Lambs