Note: This is not a review of the 2016 Sundance award winning film, The Birth Of A Nation. This is a personal narrative about my struggles deciding if I should watch the Nate Parker film at all after news of rape charges in 1999. I don’t know that I’ll ever be able to bring myself to put pen to paper and write a full review of the film. I won’t write a single word of that review that references the controversy surrounding Parker. I only want to review the art, not the artist.
It’s been nearly a week since I drove an hour away to see The Birth Of A Nation.
It was incredibly difficult for me to put my thoughts into words then while hammering away a few notes on my cell phone.
It’s incredibly difficult for me to write about this film now. And it shouldn’t have had to be.
Ever since Nate Parker’s Civil War-era biopic blew viewers away at Sundance winning both the audience award and jury prize, The Birth Of A Nation had been on the top of my must see list for nearly a year. Early reviews were glowing; 23 of the 24 critic reviews on Rotten Tomatoes were positive and verging on gushing over this film, which seemed to be the cure-all for the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that roared throughout Hollywood in early 2016.
The Birth Of A Nation was an important movie then. And it’s still an important movie now, but for so many other reasons.
I wish I could have experienced The Birth Of A Nation then, when Parker’s determination to give up his career and finances to make his passion project was the film’s primary narrative; when the cinema mattered more than the man who made it.
I’ll never get to experience that Birth Of A Nation.
My Birth Of A Nation experience is/was/will forever be shrouded in the fog of the August revelation that Parker had been charged with raping a fellow undergrad while on the wrestling team at Penn State University in 1999. He was later acquitted of those charges, but his friend and Birth Of A Nation co-writer Jean Celestin was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison.
The Oscar buzz dried up. Critics couldn’t write reviews without referencing controversy. Promotional efforts shrank. Wanting to see the film felt like a stain you couldn’t wash out.
Personally, I hadn’t considered skipping The Birth Of A Nation until an independent filmmaker I truly respected posted on Facebook that he felt legitimately conflicted about seeing the movie after the Parker controversy was made public.
Was there something that I was missing?
Having zero experience with sexual assault (or sex at all for that matter) and nearly no knowledge of rape culture, I did what I would do with any topic: read as many articles as I could and watched the most respected documentaries on the topic I could find.
A couple weeks before the Parker controversy came to light, I had seen ESPN’s terrific and powerful “30 for 30” documentary Fantastic Lies about the Duke lacrosse team scandal where three players were accused of the gang rape of a stripper they hired for a team party. Those allegations had later been proven false.
When I first read about Parker’s rape charges and acquittal, instantly the Duke case came to mind. I think I wanted the rape to be untrue, even though I’ve since learned that a small percentage of rape allegations actually are. Instantly, I knew The Birth Of A Nation was poisoned beyond repair and I was sad. I wanted to see this up-and-coming filmmaker’s work in the light it was made to be seen it. Now that was impossible.
I’ll never know for certain whether the rape happened. And that’s immensely frustrating. Definitive proof one way or another would have selfishly made my decision whether or not to see the film easier, or at least easier to justify.
Something still felt wrong.
Was I perpetuating rape culture by wanting to see this film, by wanting to see this filmmaker vindicated for my own selfish purposes?
I certainly didn’t want to be.
I watched The Hunting Ground, Kirby Dick’s emotional and powerful documentary about rape on college campuses as seen through the experiences of victims seeking justice through their universities and finding little to none. It’s a heartbreaking film.
I still didn’t feel like I understood enough, so I watched it again. And again. And again. Four screenings of The Hunting Ground just made me feel lost and helpless. I wanted to help end the cycle so no woman or man would have to go through the pain and suffering of such an emotionally scarring, devastating event. I didn’t know that I could.
Was watching The Birth Of A Nation a betrayal of these feelings? To this day, I still don’t know.
A couple of days before I saw the Sundance Award winning film, I watched another emotionally wrecking and powerful documentary, Audrie and Daisy, on Netflix. The documentary follows the stories of several teenage girls who are victims of sexual assault in their early high school years. Though both Audrie and Daisy are emotionally devastated by their assaults, Audrie commits suicide while Daisy struggles to regain herself before joining fellow teen victims to create a survivors’ organization.
I thought about that film and those young women a lot in the last week and a half. I thought about the Duke lacrosse players whose lives are irreparably changed because of allegations that just weren’t true. I thought about Brock Turner, the Stanford swimmer who sexually assaulted an intoxicated woman behind a dumpster and left her there only to receive three months of actual jail time. I thought about the woman who killed herself in 2012 because she continued to be haunted by the events that occurred between her, Parker and Celestin one night at Penn State in 1999.
I continue to wonder “What if that had been me? What if that had been someone I loved?” as I attempt to place myself in the shoes of both accuser and accused in every situation. I still have no answers.
Those thoughts flooded my mind as I drove 45 miles to see The Birth Of A Nation, all the while questioning whether I should watch something else or just turn around and go home.
I decided to watch The Birth Of A Nation because for that two-hour window one Saturday morning, I was able to separate Nate Parker the filmmaker from Nate Parker the person.
I don’t know if I’ll ever watch The Birth Of A Nation again. I don’t know if I can.