Why the Nate Parker Case Matters Now

Over the weekend old news about Nate Parker surfaced. 17 years ago Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who he co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with, were involved in a rape case while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999. The victim said that she was raped by the two men after passing out in their room following a night of drinking while Parker and Celestin said that the sex was consensual. Parker, who had consensual sex with the victim on an earlier occasion was, somehow, acquitted and Celestin was convicted and then had it overturned in an appeal. The victim, whose name we don’t know, dropped out of Penn State, attempted suicide twice, and committed suicide in 2012 according to recent reports. Fast forward to 17 years later…

Parker is at the height of his career with his film The Birth of a Nation being talked about as an Oscar contender. But now his past has come back to haunt him and some discussions of it are inordinately focused on how it may affect his chances at an Oscar:

Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’

Nate Parker’s College Rape Trial Raises Questions for ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Release

Is This the First Controversy of the 2017 Awards Season?

The industry is concerned that they may not see a return on their investment and their rising star might fall. This feels kind of familiar to me, as familiar as a father who, during his child’s sentencing for raping an unconscious woman said, “That is a steep price to pay for 20 minutes of action out of his 20 plus years of life.” Turner was convicted on three counts of felony sexual assault, sentenced to six months in jail, three years on probation, and will have to register as a sexual offender. His lenient sentence was attributed to his whiteness and privilege and his people’s desire to see him flourish after this hard time in his life. In many ways, Parker’s case reads the same.

There seems to be a need to protect men in power or on the brink of power in sexual assault cases. Parker is joining a line of men in Hollywood–and other men in power–with sexual assault cases on their personal resumes: Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby, and the scores of others we don’t know about. I’m reminded of a story I pitched a year ago on Bill Cosby, rape culture, and Christian silence only to have a man in a position of power tell me that “outing” Cosby at the time–which was around the time of the South Carolina confederate flag debate–would be a distraction. As if we couldn’t address both. I was discouraged and felt like this man also shared a part in rape culture by keeping silent and trying to keep me silent–don’t worry, I did end up writing about Cosby, Christian Silence and Rape Culture on my personal blog. But this is just another example how men in power protect other men in power. (Want another example, check out this season of Orange is the New Black.) Hollywood’s interest is to protect these men because of the investment they made in them and Parker is just the latest. This isn’t an attack on him because he’s a black man on the come up, it’s par for the course for his position in the industry and for this day and age when talk of sexual violence is becoming commonplace. Given this, Parker’s PR has clearly been on their grind if his mealy-mouthed statements are any indication:

“I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”

“The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Maybe “mealy-mouthed” isn’t a fair description of his statement, it’s more than a mealy-mouthed statement and yet it is still less than what is necessary at a time when narratives of sexual violence are still more determined by men than they are by the women who are most affected by it. Parker tries to pay general attention to those affected by sexual violence, but in his particular role in enacting violence he, nor Celestin, take explicit responsibly for their actions and that feels violent to me.

I have a problem with the fact that the discussions of this are being couched in terms of how this will affect The Birth of a Nation‘s chance at the Oscars or its general release. That ought not be the issue and Parker’s deflecting from the problem of that framing is disheartening. I get it, Parker wants to tell Nat Turner’s story and wants America to face the truth of its history. But this encounter with his own part in the history of sexual violence is also an opportunity for him and America, particularly American men, to face the truth of the role they play in normalizing sexual violence. Parker’s statement turns away from the gross reality of how sexual violence narratives are scripted for men in positions of power. They are swept under the rug and a “not guilty” sentence is interpreted as innocence while the victim suffers in silence. Their stories can be revised and edited in such a way as to make the men the victims and cancel the real victim out. In this case, the spotlight is on Parker and Celestin but they are using it to focus on the wrong thing, themselves, their project, and their families as some kind of scapegoat that absolves them from anyone ever thinking they could do harm. All of this is the result of failing to recognize how easy it is for sexual violence narratives to be minimized and how they–Parker and Celestin–are a part of the problem.

17 years later this still matters because the effects of sexual violence have no statute of limitations, not for the victim, not for the suspect, not for anyone involved. We need a different word from Parker and Celestin, one that doesn’t deflect to their project and who they’ve become before it takes a long, hard look at the effects of a crime they committed 17 years ago and how the stories we tell about rape always matter. An accusation of rape always matters. A rape case always matters. The victim of rape always matters and Parker and Celestin seem blithely unaware that, 17 years later, this still matters as if it happened yesterday because rape matters.

 

 

 

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Being Mary Jane Lesson #2: Coming Out of Darkness

Note: This week’s recap is a little late because the episode was a lot to digest. As usual, if you haven’t seen you may want to watch first and then read.

The week’s episode of “Being Mary Jane” was, in my opinion, one of the best episodes thus far. Mara Brock Akil took Mary Jane and viewers into the uncharted territory of discussing sex trafficking, coming out to a homophobic parent, and navigating inter/intraracial relationship issues. In each of these issues there was a journey through darkness that either enlightened the character or submerged them even deeper into the void.

The episode starts with Mary Jane continuing a light dalliance with David which turns out to be a nightmare starring a white baby named Andre–a reminder of her past. She is swiftly kicked backed into reality by an infant’s blood-curdling cries and she realizes that her life is actually nightmarish because of her niece’s takeover of her home. But this is minor. One of the major plots is revealed when we see Mary Jane in a car watching a young woman sitting in front of a motel. This is our introduction to Mary Jane’s research for a segment on sex trafficking. In the car Mary Jane gains insight into the world of sex-trafficking in Atlanta–the sex trafficking capital of the United States. Note: Atlanta is, in fact, a major hub for sex trafficking in the United States. And so art imitates life on this episode as Mary Jane learns about the reality of life for a teenage girl caught in sex trafficking. It is hard to say that there is such thing as a refreshing take on sex trafficking but, if I could say it, Brock Akil gave us that. In my observation, I usually see white people at the forefront of the anti-sex trafficking movement and young black girls as the victims and the stars of the narratives. Brock Akil casts Mary Jane in the role of “person with a Messiah complex” in order to do saving work for a young white girl caught in trafficking. Unfortunately what viewers discover is that Messiah complexes don’t necessarily yield fruit. Mary Jane’s best attempt to rescue a 15-year-old white girl from sex trafficking most likely gets the girl into bigger trouble. Thus, both the girl and Mary Jane were cast deeper into darkness. Following this botched rescue, we see Mary Jane at her desk watching video of another young victim of sex trafficking. The young victim speaks glowingly about her pimp, and Mary Jane stares at her in disbelief. And scene.

Note: For those of you who watched last night, you probably realized that I’m recapping this out-of-order, just stay with me though? I’m going somewhere with this.

bmj-aaron-spearsThe second issue that took place was coming out to a homophobic parent. Mary Jane’s best friend Mark has hidden his true sexual nature from his parent but it all came to a head last night. During a staged dinner where Mark and Mary Jane play the role of happy couple, Mark’s mother realizes that it is all a show. Frustrated with the farce, Mark’s mother tells him that she knows he is gay and has known for sometime. But it is not his mother’s reaction that is startling, it is Mark’s father. He rises up with such great anger that first situates itself in his son’s preference to stick his penis in another man’s anus but then it becomes more complex. It turns out that Mark’s father is angry because his son preferred to live a lie rather than tell the truth and risk his father’s displeasure. Again Brock Akil takes an issue that has its place in the lived experience of many black men and women and brings it to life. Traditionally the black community is sketched as being homophobic but only recently are we seeing stories bring that to life on primetime television. For instance, Lee Daniels’s “Empire” features record mogul and father Lucious Lyons battling with his feelings of homophobia toward his same-gender loving son–feelings that were once so vitriolic that he threw him in a garbage can. And now we have another father in primetime verbally discarding his same-gender loving son. Mark came out of darkness, in a way, but he didn’t experience much relief as it created tension between him and his father and resulted in the loss of the lover he shrouded in darkness. This brings us to the third issue, navigating inter/intraracial dating.

Our first encounter with navigating interracial dating occurs when Mark and his boyfriend Lance have a fight before his parents arrival. Lance doesn’t understand why Mark kept his sexuality a secret from his family nor does he understand Mark’s difficulty with navigating not only his blackness but his gayness. Again, art imitates life and Brok Akil taps into the nuanced issue of the black gay lived experience. The reality is that some black gay people feel they have two identities to navigate and, sometimes, it is easier–but still challenging–to be just a minority rather than the double minority of being black and gay. I, being a black woman, understand the struggle of being a double minority but I dare not say I understand the struggle of being the double minority of black male and gay. Over the past weekend I did have some thoughts about the privilege that white gay men have because they still have their whiteness to protect them, but that was the limit of my reflection. The black gay man, on the other hand, cannot throw off his blackness and even if he can put off his sexual identity it will not protect him.

Then we have the intraracial dating issue that Kara presents when she tells an otherwise good suitor that she doesn’t date Latino men. Kara was previously married to a white man and that didn’t work out. She dated an intern who was Mexican and that didn’t work out. And now an eligible bachelor is in front of her, who it seems she has chemistry with, but she sabotages it with her “No intraracial dating rule.” We don’t know much about why Kara has that rule, and it actually seems a little illogical given her track record with men across the board, but maybe we’ll dive deeper into that as the season continues.

As you can see this week’s episode was chock full of issues. Issues that needed to see the light in primetime particular in black households. I called this lesson “coming out of darkness” primarily because Mary Jane’s pending segment on sex trafficking reminded me of a series of conversations I’ve had over the past few days/months and my responsibility. I’ve not said it here because this blog is fairly new, but my hope is that the next chapter of my life will be spent researching and studying issues in sex and sexuality and ethics. The “Out of Darkness” tag has particular significance to me because it is the name of an anti-sex trafficking organization here in Atlanta that I trained with a few years ago. I remember, vividly, what it felt like being one of the only black faces in a white space dedicated to saving young women from sex trafficking. I remember what it felt like to watch the videos of young girls in sex trafficking and have most of them look like me and not like some of the lily-white faces I’ve seen plastered on billboards around the city. I remember feeling at odds because at once I wanted to help but I didn’t want to do it under the banner of a group where almost everyone was “other” treating the young women they were saving like the “other.” I didn’t like the rhetoric used to do this saving work. And yet, now that I know about this problem, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution not just a critic of it. As many times as it and other issues around sex and sexuality come up, I am responsible for becoming a part of the solution.

“Being Mary Jane” reminded me of my responsibility. My hope is that many other people saw this week’s episode and realized their responsibility. Their responsibility to do saving work on behalf of victims in sex trafficking. Their responsibility to welcome their brothers and sisters. Their responsibility to be empathetic to those of a different or same race/ethnicity. Mara Brock Akil brought us out of darkness on Tuesday. We can no longer plead ignorance about some things, so now the ball is in our court. What are we going to do?

A final note: The one critique I will make about Tuesday’s episode is Akil’s neglect in providing people with information about what to do if they suspect a young person is involved in sex trafficking or information about sex trafficking in general, at least not on the show. BET.com did dedicate a page to sex trafficking education, and I also provided some additional links.

Report Trafficking 

Alliance Against Human Trafficking

International Rescue Committee

If you know of any other reputable organizations, please leave them in the comments.

 

The Issues with the Abercrombie & Fitch Brand Readjustment

Yesterday many Facebook feeds lit up with filmmaker Greg Farber’s campaign against clothing retailer Abercrombie & Fitch. Karber’s contention against A&F begins with his problem with CEO Mike Jeffries who intentionally doesn’t sell plus size clothing because he doesn’t want people who wear plus-sized clothing to wear his clothes. Jeffries says, “We go after the attractive all-American kid with a great attitude and a lot of friends,” he told Salon.com in 2006. “A lot of people don’t belong [in our clothes], and they can’t belong. Are we exclusionary? Absolutely.” This landed Jeffries on Farber’s shit list, but the impetus behind his campaign is the fact that combined with not wanting to sell clothes to a particular type of person of a particular size, A&F burns all damaged and unsold clothes instead of donating them. So Farber has set out to find A&F clothes by any means necessary–save for going into a store to buy it–and give those clothes to people who are homeless. At once this seems like an admirable task because people who are homeless are getting clothes which equals them getting help in some people’s minds, but there is something else here, issues that only appear if people stop cheering for homeless people getting “shitty clothes”–as one of my friends put it.

#1: The Exploitation Issue: Karber’s primary interest in this campaign is to rebrand A&F by giving their clothes to people who are homeless, thus the people who are homeless become a means to an end and not an end in themselves. It is rather hard to tell if Karber would have started a campaign to provide people who are homeless with clothes if it wasn’t for his labor of love to shame Jeffries and A&F at large. And, what does it mean that he filmed these people who are homeless for his benefit and not theirs? It’s difficult to praise this because after the cameras stop rolling those people are still homeless just with different clothing and Farber goes back to his house and gets to edit their lives and get us all in on his campaign.

#2: The “Does this Mean Homeless People are Uncool?” Issue

Jeffries believes that certain people aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes, namely people who are plus-sized, but Karber ventures to guess there are other people who aren’t cool enough to wear his clothes. People who are poor or homeless are the other target audience because they aren’t popular nor do they have shiny, happy faces like your average A&F model. So Farber goes to find uncool people who are homeless to give A&F clothing to. In a way, Karber’s video can be interpreted as his subscribing to the very notion he is trying to reject. Is his giving clothing to people who are homeless playing a part in the ascription of the label “uncool”? Or is he saying that homeless people are cool enough to wear Abercrombie because of their intrinsic value as people? Furthermore, why spend so much time trying to get people who are homeless into clothing from A&F when you can just get them clothes, period? Or, better yet, get them into opportunities.

#3 The Bigger Picture Issue

What struck me about this entire situation is not what Karber is doing but what Jeffries and many other clothing retailers are probably doing in burning damaged or unsold clothes. I thought to myself, “Shouldn’t there be a law against this or some legislation passed that requires retailers to donate unsold or damaged clothes?” It makes no sense to me that clothes–including the damaged clothing–are burned when millions are going without. Resolving this issue might put clothes on the back of many people who are poor or homeless. But “might” is the operative word because the reality of the situation is, people who are poor or homeless don’t need more clothes, they need opportunities. So what about fighting for them to get jobs at places like A&F–notice I said “like” and not “such as”. There are bigger battles to wage in the fight against poverty and homelessness.

Finding all the A&F clothing that isn’t already on the backs of attractive, All-American kids and giving them away to people who are homeless is nice and admirable, but it is just a drop in the bucket of the homelessness issue. And what I’m offering here are some of the issues I saw with Karber’s concept. I think it’s close but no cigar, but maybe I am being too critical. What do you think?

Defending Descent: On Cinematic Rape and Retribution

Disclaimer: One, the conclusion of Descent starring Rosario Dawson is given away here so if you’d prefer not to have this spoiler you may look away now, but I encourage you stay for it is that conclusion which paves the way for my broader analysis. Two, this blog touches on the topic of rape which may be touchy subject for some because of their direct or indirect experience. Please know that I write this as a woman has not directly or indirectly experienced rape in reality but only through cinema. If you have experienced it, I’d encourage you–if you can–to stay and read along and add voice to this discussion so that it may be full and not lacking in perspective. Thank you for reading.

This weekend I watched a man get raped by another man and I couldn’t take my eyes off of it. It was in a film entitled Descent in which Rosario Dawson plays a college woman who gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor and exacts revenge by planning for the perpetrator to get raped by another man. I watched the film with a close male friend whom, during the rape scene between the two men, turned  to look at me a several times and each time my eyes were glued to the screen. He couldn’t draw my attention away from it. It was 10 minutes of violent thrusting, name-calling, and shaming and I could not be moved to either talk about how excessive it might have been or turn it off all together. After the film was over I sat on my couch in silence with my eyes still hooked on the television screen. My heart was beating quickly and my mind was running a million miles per minute. My friend commented on how excessive he thought the rape scene was and all I could remember saying is that it made sense. He repeated that he felt it was excessive for the film and still I repeated, “It makes sense.” My logic throughout the 10 minute rape scene and in conversation with my friend was that for decades we have watched women get raped in film and on television. I watched Kristy Swanson’s character Kristen get raped in John Singleton’s college campus drama Higher Learning. In the second season of a Different World Freddie Brooks almost gets raped by her date Garth Parks. I watched Buffy almost get raped by Spike. In Gossip Girl I watched Chuck Bass attempt to rape two women in one episode. In For Colored Girls Only, Yasmine/Yellow gets raped by a man whom she thought was a potential suitor. There is the rape scene in Stanley Kubrick’s Clockwork Orange which is edited out in most versions. I also hear that there is a rape scene in The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo in which the main female character gets raped through sodomy. When I saw each of these movies or television shows I didn’t anticipate having to sit through a rape scene, but alas I did. And sadly, these movies don’t add up to even half of the movies with rape scenes in them.

Countless are the movies and television shows in which women get raped or are in another way sexually assaulted. As a woman, I am almost too used seeing other women get defiled in the media either through the dramatic portrayal of rape, sexual assault, or through the popular coerced or voluntary objectification of women in music videos. But when I watched the rape revenge in Descent I felt something. Maybe it was redemption for all the years of women being raped in cinema and real life. To be clear, I don’t believe in this type of personal retributive justice, because in the end it most likely will not resolve anything. This is illustrated in Descent‘s final scene as Dawson turns toward the man raping her assailant and, with tears in her eyes, silently conveys that this is no revenge at all. One reviewer of the movie, called it a demagogic feminist exploitation revenge drama, but to do so is to misunderstand the project of feminism which is not employed well in this film. For it to be a true demagogic feminist exploitation revenge, the movie would not end with the man in power but would end with Dawson’s character reclaiming herself. I believe the true feminist revenge is to not let rape define and shape you into anything other than a woman who reclaims herself–but maybe I have just been reading too much Camille Paglia and the movie does indeed represent feminist revenge.

But,lest I get too far away from my original point,  I do think watching that scene, unwilling to turn my eyes away from it, made me much more certain that personal retributive justice is not what I believe in. I derived no pleasure from the scene but in refusing to take my eyes off of it, even when my friend tried to divert me, was me implicitly saying, “Sit through this, get comfortable with it,” because I have gotten comfortable with rape over the years. And yes, I admit that is part of this, that I wanted a male to sit through a scene of another male getting raped without averting his gaze, I wanted him to be comfortable with it. The day after I asked my friend if his maleness affected his ability to accept the prolonged rape scene to which he said it didn’t, he just believes that it was excessive in film and not right in reality. We also had a conversation about the possibility of females being a little more open to watching it unhindered because it could serve as cinematic redemption to the pervasive rape culture. We have no answer to the aforementioned query. So maybe my reaction was my own and not representative of what many women might find agreeable, but I am curious to know if there are any women or men out there who may find this type of revenge dramatically portrayed helpful or harmful to rape culture as we know it? If you have seen Descent what might you suggest as an alternative ending? If you are a feminist or a womanist–because I can’t neglect that a part of this film was the power dynamic between this white man and Dawson’s “ethnically ambiguous” self which he insulted during the rape–what is your response to this film? And, generally speaking, what do we make of the rape in cinema, its prevalence, its portrayal of the act, the power dynamic, etc?