Editor’s note — this subject matter calls for some form of coping mechanism. Mine is flippancy and course language. I’m fucking serious. If you continue to read this, it’ll ruin your night. Graphic content warning.
The U.S. as a culture, from top to bottom, doesn’t have the first fucking clue how to handle rape.
First off, we don’t even know what rape is. On a legal level, the definition of what is or is not sexual assault varies from state to state, with some states being pretty alarmingly lax, and on a personal level, it feels like every year a new study comes out about all the incoming college students who don’t know or care what consent is. There are no end of horror stories about police shaming victims who come forward or simply not pursuing their cases. If they do, courts still have no idea how to treat the victim with dignity while still having a fair trial, which they do still need to have. And if all that goes right, the judge could still hand out a six month sentence at his discretion.
The legal system can and often does shit the bed at any point in this process. Prosecuting sexual crimes is so notoriously difficult that, according to the latest statistics from the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network, only a third of sexual assaults are ever reported to the police in the first place and only six out of every 1,000 rapists are ever incarcerated.
With so much uncertainty over how much raping is happening and who’s doing it, it’s no surprise that we also don’t know how to handle allegations when they become public. Sometimes they’re swept neatly under the rug and only ever heard about when it mysteriously continues to happen. Sometimes a single allegation will define an entire career. If sexual assault cases are unpredictable in real courts, they’re the Wild West in the court of public opinion.
This brings us to Nate Parker, the writer, director and star of the Sundance favorite Birth of a Nation remake, which hits theaters this evening. The film has weathered a storm of controversy over resurfacing allegations that, in 1999, Parker raped a fellow Pennsylvania State University student. The film has lost advance screenings over the controversy, and Parker himself refuses to address the issue. To further complicate things, the film reportedly features a violent, historically inaccurate rape scene, and Parker casts himself as leading a slave revolt specifically to avenge it.
The reaction is specific to this case — no one’s boycotting the X-Men movies over Singer’s allegations, after all. Bearing in mind everything we know about how inconsistently rape and public allegations of rape are handled in this country, how do we handle these?
Did Nate Parker rape that woman?
Often, you can look at the details of sexual assault allegations and find telltale signs, like dozens of other women coming forward with similar stories, that can tip you off about what really happened. This case, though, is a giant, stinking mess.
In 1999, when Parker was a sophomore at Penn State, a woman accused him and Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a story credit on Birth of a Nation, of raping her. The victim said she was so drunk she didn’t know how many men were attacking her, but fingered Parker and Celestin. She also said Parker and Celestin hired a private investigator to spread her identity around campus after she pressed charges. As if things couldn’t get any trashier, students brought up race as an issue as the case was going to trial in 2001 — Parker and Celestin are black and their accuser and all but one of the jurors were white.
Parker was found not guilty of four charges brought against him, but Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months-to a year in prison, a sentence that was later expanded to two-to four years because no one in their right mind would hand out a sentence of just six months for sexual assault, right?! Realizing he’d been had, Celestin appealed on the grounds of ineffective counsel, and the conviction was overturned in 2005. The victim was ready to go for a retrial, but most of the other witnesses had graduated and gotten the hell out of Pennsylvania and prosecutors didn’t feel like rounding them all up, so they dropped the case.
The victim would sue Penn State for failing to protect her from the alleged post-assault harassment, settling for $17,500. In 2012, she killed herself.
With race, alcohol and an apparent mistrial muddying the case, if you can make heads or tails of that, congratulations.
How much does it matter to you?
It’s easy to say this matters in a vacuum. If what this woman said is true, Parker is responsible for destroying another human life. Obviously, that matters. But what does that mean?
Does that mean he belongs in prison? That ship has sailed. Does it mean you shouldn’t go to see his movie? Does it mean you should cancel screenings so that others can’t, either?
Parker’s persecution, justified or not, is part of a growing movement to completely cast sex offenders out of our society. Because it’s not enough to just physically imprison them — or maybe, because we can’t seem to figure out how to physically imprison them — there’s a movement to invalidate their work or any redeeming quality they may have had. But what happens when that’s not possible?
Take probably the best recent example — the Bill Cosby allegations. More than 60 women have now come forward and said that the legendary comedian abused them in some way. But he was already entrenched as one of the most influential comedians of all time. The Cosby Show’s titanic influence on race relations, daring to show a black family on prime time just being a normal family, can never be undone (the linked articles were both written a month and a half before Hannibal Buress’ late October sketch and 11 women coming forward in quick succession, bringing the scandal into the spotlight).
How do we reconcile that undeniable positive influence with the near certainty that he is a serial rapist?
A potential answer
The tension between Cosby’s accomplishments and the monstrous acts he stands accused of remains unresolved. But perhaps the most concrete example of a bad person making a good work of art is, ironically, the original Birth of a Nation.
An idealogically skewed 1915 retelling of the Civil War and its aftermath based on the play The Clansman, Birth of a Nation was protested by the NAACP. Its release heralded riots in major U.S. cities as white people were literally inspired by the film to attack black people. The film was central to the establishment of the second Ku Klux Klan, explicitly glorifying the first one.
But, more than a century later, its positive influence is undeniable. Birth of a Nation was the longest and most expensive ever made at the time, the first epic motion picture, one of a myriad of firsts it boasts that are now standard for Hollywood. Every historical drama, every blockbuster and every institution based on the idea that film is art and not just a string of pictures owes its existence to this film. It remained the highest grossing picture until finally being beaten by Gone with the Wind, which came out in 1939.
Director/producer D.W. Griffith would spend the rest of his career trying to prove himself not racist, eventually releasing a re-edit in 1921 with all references to the Klan removed, but no movie he made could wipe out the legacy of Birth of a Nation, or its controversy.
The lesson isn’t that racists can make movies, but rapists can’t — it’s that art stands on its own. There’s an evolutionary nature to art, and no matter how vile the artist, the best work will always be the most influential in the end.
As it applies to the new Birth of a Nation and the questions of whether or not you should watch something made by an alleged rapist and whether or not Oscar nominations should be withheld because of the controversy, the answer is the beat will march on. It remains to be seen whether or not this new movie is any good — though the grand jury prize it won at Sundance is certainly and indication. But from Griffith’s example, it’s clear that if it is good, its influence will be felt, regardless of what happened at Penn State.
Roger Ebert said about the original, “All serious moviegoers must sooner or later arrive at a point where they see a film for what it is, and not simply for what they feel about it.” A woman is dead by her own hand, and said she was gang-raped and shamed for years beforehand. In real life, that matters. But in the theater, all that matters is the art.