Earlier this year, I found myself in the Eccles Theater, in Park City, Utah, for the premiere of one of the most highly-anticipated films of the Sundance Film Festival, Nat Parker’s The Birth of A Nation. What I witnessed that cold winter afternoon foreshadowed much of the drama that Parker finds himself currently embroiled in.
Last week, while waiting on friends at a sports bar, I received an alert on my phone that a major entertainment publication was running a story about Parker’s alleged rape story from his college years. Reportedly, Parker and his roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, were charged with raping an unconscious college student. Reportedly, she claimed both men had sex with her after she had passed out in their room following a night of drinking. They claimed the encounter was consensual. Traumatized, she subsequently dropped out of college, and attempted suicide, per court documents. Parker, who had an earlier mutually willing sexual encounter with the student, was acquitted of the charges. Celestin initially was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal and his case was not retried. So for the record, one more time, Parker is INNOCENT.
Fast forward to the day before the premiere and my colleague, Travis Hopson and I, sat down for a brief conversation with Parker to discuss his highly-anticipated, much buzzed about film. One of the questions was ” what do you anticipate several months from now before the film’s release? My initial thoughts were strictly political, for example, the thought that conservatives may use the film as election fodder, etc. In my wildest dreams, I did not anticipate such a calculated and focused attack of this magnitude on this filmmaker.
Full disclosure, I’ve interviewed Parker several times over the years and always found him to be accessible, warm and very easy to communicate. I respect his work and his choices and clearly see him as an artist on the rise. We both share a common faith and just last week, many in the audience, including myself, were moved by his passionate spiritual journey that he, and other cast members, endured during the 27-day shooting schedule for his upcoming film.
At last count, there are three MAJOR publications/websites that have “pinned” the Parker Rape Trial story to the top of the pages, literally begging readers of their sites to check in and follow. My initial reaction, as well as some of my colleagues, was to simply dismiss the “backroom talk” with the simple explanation that there is simply “nothing to see.”Each day, as the story begin to circulate, I became angrier thinking about the obvious hypocrisy that finds film fans supporting the work of obvious sexual abusers as in Woody Allen and convicted sexual abusers such as Roman Polanski, but will bring up a story from SEVENTEEN years ago to vilify Parker.
Which brings me back to that cold day in Park City, Utah. For days leading up to the premiere, Parker’s film was all anyone could talk about at Sundance. There was a virtual who’s who at the premiere, including anxious studio reps ready to place a bid on the film and other high-profile attendees who wanted a first glimpse of Parker’s potential masterwork. During one of the more intense scenes in the second act, I noticed that there were people experiencing “discomfort” over the images onscreen, which made me take notice and chuckle while reminding me of the times that I had the same experience in reverse over disturbing content.
Throughout the screening, I found myself awestruck over the strength that both Parker imbued his character and the battle for Nat Turner’s soul that plays out in the film. When the final frame came, applause reigned down in the Eccles Theaters almost shaking the building itself . . . and continued, in the dark, through the final credits. Once the lights came up and Parker emerged, it seemed to start all over again. It was a reception like none I’ve seen before for any festival film.
Earlier this year, when for the second year in a row, when no people of color were nominated for Academy Awards, there were cries of dissension and a steady stream of talking heads demanding “diversity” in films. What the Parker episode shows is that it’s not diversity the industry wants but a “certain type” of portrayal that gets the voters attention.
Let’s take a look the “Black Oscar Blueprint” that has been in effect across the decades. Historically, voters like either colorful, wisecracking performances: sassy maids (Hattie McDaniel) in Gone With the Wind, loud, colorful football players (Cuba Gooding, Jr.) in Jerry Maguire or even the good-hearted charlatan (Whoopi Goldberg) in Ghost. Then there are Black characters whose circumstances make them feel better about them self: the chapel-building handyman (Sidney Poitier) in Lillies of the Field, the supportive and abused domestic (Octavia Spencer) in The Help or the tough drill instructor and “helper of humanity” (Louis Gossett, Jr.) in An Officer and A Gentleman.
Two of my recent personal favorites remain the grief-stricken and emotionally-scarred mother (Halle Berry) in Monster’s Ball and let’s not forget one of the most heinous characters onscreen, outside of Samuel L. Jackson’s hateful house slave Stephen in Django Unchained, the abusive, hateful mother (Mo’Nique) in Monster’s Ball. Instead of chanting #OscarSoWhite, we need the #BlackOscarHonorable.
There is a certain prism that Hollywood industry insiders see us through and anytime there is too much strength, determination, those images/stories must be scrubbed or eliminated from our per view. Parker’s The Birth of A Nation is such a film that displays a man who is beaten but unbowed, not in need of a White savior and is clever enough to plan and organize a carefully calculated attack to try to free his people. I remember having a conversation with a Hollywood producer at an afterparty for the film later that night and asked if Parker creating the film independently had anything to do with how strong and unfiltered he was able to tell the story. They remarked, “absolutely, if he had mad that within the studio system, they would have given me so many notes, his message would have been watered down.”
So as the never-ending saga of the Nate Parker Rape Trial controversy continues to keep the public enthralled, I simply quote Eddie Murphy’s Axel Foley and warn you to “not fall for the banana in the tailpipe.” There is a reason the powers that be want you sucked into this social media whirlpool of despair as they try to sully an innocent man’ name and film. When it’s all said and done, the power of Parker’s message will endure . . . but will WE be ready to hear it? #NatTurnerIsComing!!!!