I wrote about this in the context of rap and popular music three years ago. Yet, most of us have not learned this lesson. That great artists and the works that they produce often do not equate in any way to the person they are outside of their artistry in their daily lives. It is so rare as to be almost a godsend when a wonderful cultural producer can also be a forthright and social justice-oriented person who has few blemishes on their record. It is so rare, in fact, that it is more likely I find a briefcase with a $2 million in $100-bills next to my car this morning than find successful cultural producers with deep waters’ worth of goodness and doing good as their record.
Twitter and Facebook folk have been up in arms about the discovery that actor/director/producer Nate Parker allegedly raped a women in ’99 along with one of his co-producers, was acquitted a year later, and the woman subsequently committed suicide in 2012. Keep in mind, this information has been out here about Parker for a number of years. Keep in mind, this act occurred when Parker was nineteen years old. Keep in mind, this vile act and the acquittal he received for it may well be the reason Parker had the opportunity to become an actor and a movie producer in the first place.
As a survivor of sexual assault myself (it still reads strange for me to write this), it makes me ill right down to my bowels, having read some of the details about what happened. Especially since I also know women to whom this happened and the impact it had on some for years afterward. I almost wish I didn’t know that Nate Parker might have gotten away with rape seventeen years ago.
But, as I also know all too well, if the idea is to not see his, et al’s The Birth of a Nation revamped to be about Nat Turner/Nat Turner’s Rebellion, good luck with that. Ultimately, to see or not to see the film is a choice that any of us can make. One can decide to see it and still feel like vomiting over Parker’s real-life rape case. One can decide not to see the film and claim that Parker is a reformed man. It is not as simple an equation as, “if you see The Birth of a Nation, you are pouring money into a rapist’s pockets.”
My biggest issue, though, is with all the outrage has come the American penchant for hypocritical moralizations, one that is in part based on race. That is, that we only have the choice of supporting Nate Parker and his revolutionary work or not, that the middle ground of seeing cultural production while reviling the man who helped produce it isn’t an available option. Sorry, but we Americans, we obese consumers and appropriators of all things cultural, do this every day. People have not stopped seeing Woody Allen or Roman Polanski films, though one is likely a child molester and the other one committed rape. We haven’t returned or burned Bill Withers’ tapes, albums, and CDs, though he’s had domestic violence issues in his past. Nor do we think about the poetry we read, the paintings and sculptures we peruse, the TV shows we watch, in which an artist of one kind or another has committed a crime, has killed, stolen from, and destroyed people’s lives along the way. The problem is, if one swings a stick at any cultural production, you will hit a thief, a mugger, an abuser, a rapist, a molester, maybe even a Nazi.
As for me, like with most movies, I will not go to see The Birth of a Nation in a movie theater. I will wait the six months or a year it takes for it to come out on premium cable. I wouldn’t have gone to see it before social media caught wind of Parker’s past. I certainly will not get sucked in to see it, to be part some moralistic wave of cultural immediacy, now.
This issue should not be about Nate Parker at all. It should be about the system that allows for rapists to get no jail time or to be acquitted. It should be about universities like Penn State that allow these crimes to go unpunished, places that punish the victims of sexual violence much more often than they do the perpetrators. It should be about a society where both fathers and mothers do nothing to teach their sons to not rape. Instead, we’re focused on one individual, as if the problem of American rape culture will be solved by going after alleged rapists years after their crimes.