If you're someone who has been preparing for September and the start of Oscar season, then director Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation has likely been on your radar. It started in January at Sundance when the film was bought for an unprecedented amount and quickly became the front runner for Sundance's annual Oscar potential candidates. With the first trailer also proving to be striking, it is a film that is at least trying to be as monumental as 12 Years a Slave from three years back. While most of the readers here have likely not seen it, the film has already come under controversy with the American Film Institute (AFI) canceling a screening and interview with Parker regarding rape allegations. There's even been talk of an Academy voter not seeing the film because of this. It looks like Parker's moment of fame has been tarnished, but can he possibly recover?
The gist of Parker's story is that in 1999 at the age of 19, he raped a woman named Jean McGianni Celestin. It went to trial and he was later acquitted of his actions (though she won an appeal). For the most part, these are details that were buried in the past. However, further details have come forward and raised difficult questions on the age old question of art vs. artist. The most unfortunate of details is that the woman committed suicide in 2012. Still, the sudden revelation hasn't given Parker any leeway. AFI canceled the first showing of the film since the allegations resurfaced. On top of that senior Academy member Marcia Nasatir has come forward with the belief that she will have trouble separating the artist from his art, especially since Parker wrote, directed, and starred in the film.
To put it bluntly: rape is one of the worst things someone can do. Parker has publicly come forward in recent weeks and discussed his personal regret of the decision. He believes that he was foolish and that it wasn't the right thing to do. However, he wants to make clear that any and all discussion of The Birth of a Nation should be more focused on the racial themes that the film explores. It may take some time, if ever, for that to become the case again. Still, if AFI cancels one of the first showings, what are the odds that the creator's personal life will impact its reputation come Oscar consideration time?
It's a sticky subject, and one that doesn't have the best track record. Roman Polanski famously fled the country after an incident with a 13-year-old. He would win a Best Director Oscar for The Pianist 25 years later - though that was also met with controversial disagreement. Likewise, Woody Allen has won several awards over his career despite rumors in 1992 spreading that he molested his children, and that he married his adopted daughter. Those rumors continue to haunt him, even at this year's Cannes Film Festival. Despite having an abundance of work, they are the poster children for a conflicted problem regarding punishing rapists. Parker's far from the first to do something this criminal, but it only poses the question on if he'll face defeat, or if he'll be like Allen and somehow survive every accusation. True, there are other examples that can be brought up - such as Sean Penn's too horrifying to print here abuse when he dated Madonna; or Mel Gibson's infamous tirade. Of these four men, Gibson seems to be the only one whose backlash stuck, though even that was rewarded with some consistent work.
It is cynical and shallow to talk about rape as a deal breaker for Oscars. I don't know enough about Parker's case to properly judge him, though I commend him on at least owning his mistakes. The more interesting thing will be how he attempts to restore his public image and possibly make a redemption story worthy of keeping The Birth of a Nation in discussion. Of course, I am just going to go down to the basic idea on if the film is good or bad. I know that Parker may have some less-than-stellar attributes, but art is subjective and it is doubtful that cinema would exist as a higher art form without some damaged individuals. It is reprehensible, sure, but there's too many secrets in history that would make reading, watching, doing anything hard to do. The trick is to live with it, as hard as it may be. The question isn't how this impacts The Birth of a Nation, but how it impacts how we see Parker as a person. That is how we should be looking at it.