Why now? This is what I keep asking myself about the Nate Parker “Birth of a Nation” situation. As a black woman, I have to admit that I am torn on the issue. A part of me wants to stand up for this black man and defend him and his efforts against the criticism and negativity. On the other hand, I heavily consider what if he did commit rape, and the justice system; in one of those rare moments when it works in our favor, got it wrong. This is what I think about.
If you aren’t familiar with this story, Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars in The Birth of a Nation. It’s the tale of Nat Turner, the slave who led a violent revolt in 1831 that freed himself and other slaves in Virginia. The film was hailed a masterpiece at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, and Fox Searchlight Pictures bought the rights to it for $17.5 million. It’s kind of a big deal and has already generated a lot of Oscar buzz. With such a huge project and the potential to have a major impact on audiences; one has to put the passion aside and consider the “why now” question. It’s valid, and it’s important.
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What do we know about Nate Parker’ rape case? There is all kind of information online about the situation that happened in the fall of 1999 at Penn State. Testimonies, transcripts, phone calls and more are there for anyone to see and make their own assumptions about what happened. But that’s all it will be- assumptions. Because even though Parker and his friend Jean Celestin were ultimately cleared of any wrongdoing (Parker first and Celestin four years later), they are the only people that know what really happened. The victim sadly committed suicide 13 years later in 2012. Nonetheless, whatever we gather from the 17-year-old evidence is only our opinions rooted in deep emotion about such a touchy subject.
I have to confess that I struggled with whether or not to write about this because I didn’t want to take a side. I can’t say yes he did it and got off, nor can I say that the alleged victim got it wrong, and he’s innocent. What I can say is that it is eerily suspicious that the case is mattering now. That’s my main source of consternation, and that’s what it comes down to for me.
Why are people bringing it up at a time when a movie like The Birth of a Nation is set to shake some things up? What is the relevance of it all right now at this moment? In my opinion, the answer to the question is clear.
Bringing up a rape case in which there was no conviction for Parker is meant to discredit him; which in turn discredits his work. And this work is an important piece that deals with a significant moment in American history where black people fought back during a time when doing so meant death. To put it plainly, I don’t think white people are too happy about the film. In fact, celebrities like Charlamagne the God, who screened the film, said that on several occasions, white people walked out the theater.
Here’s the ugly truth. Because we live in a society that has become increasingly more racially charged over the last few years; when certain segments of society don’t like that people of color (POC) are about to make a major move, they can’t handle it. We don’t see what they do and have no real insights that they are doing it until it’s done. I compare the notion to the back and forth we see in presidential elections; the only thing is the accused in this case has no one to direct rebuttals to because the source inciting the accusations is unknown. I mean think about it, Nate Parker has been acting for years but now all of a sudden with The Birth of a Nation his rape case is pertinent?
Even with Parker’s exoneration, the very fact that he was accused is damaging enough to make many people, in particular, black women, declare their disgust with the actor. Furthermore, many have taken to social media to denounce the film and vow that they won’t be seeing it because they refuse to support a rapist.
The controversy is trying to overshadow the film and its message, which I am sure, is exactly what the folks who dug it up in the first place wants it to do. Now does the situation take away from the truth in the movie? Of course not, but this is a clear lesson on how the messenger’s reputation can potentially negate good intentions.
Even if Nate Parker is found innocent of the rape, the stains of this smear won’t ever leave his “Birth of a Nation.”