Black Love: 30 Years in Film

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.

 

 

 

Bill Cosby, Christian Silence, and Rape Culture Perpetuation

Recently I was in search of inspiration and I needed to start my day with a word of inspiration or at least a couple of good songs. So I turned to the local gospel station to find the Yolanda Adams Morning Show in full swing. Adams, like many over the past few days, talked about Bill Cosby’s deposition, in which he confessed to purchasing drugs to drug women for sex. Adams, instead of talking about how problematic Cosby’s action were, asked why a woman would go to a married man’s hotel room. She tried to deflect by saying that she wasn’t condoning what Cosby did but that it still remains that the women shouldn’t have visited the room of a married man in the first place. Following her comment others on the show chimed in to talk about what they felt were the missing pieces in the situation and one man even remarked about how, when he saw Bill Cosby’s stand-up routine years ago, he was just so inspiration. After they finished bloviating they moved on and so did I. My hope for inspiration was dashed away by everything they didn’t say and so I turned my attention elsewhere, specifically to Big Sean’s “Dark Sky Paradise.”

I didn’t turn on the radio to hear what Yolanda Adams and friends had to say about Bill Cosby but since they decided to speak, I hoped they would speak correctly about the situation. I haven’t even talked much, publicly, about Cosby because I’ve been trying to figure out if it’s an expedient use of my time and voice. But as the days wear on and more information is revealed and I see how people are processing it, I realize that I can’t remain silent. I can’t remain silent because there are so many women who remain silent and even now their silence is being eclipsed by those who choose not to see situations, such as the one we are currently watching unfold with Cosby, as a cause for concern. Silence is a huge part of the issue of hand with Cosby, scores of sexual abusers, and the abused.

When you do a search for Christian websites who have covered the latest news on the Cosby situation you come up with nothing. They aren’t talking about the fact that he confessed to purchasing the drugs; they aren’t talking about the fact that he used the drugs and his power to sexually abuse women; they aren’t talking about the problem with the people who, only now, believe he raped the women because of the deposition; they aren’t talking about anything. Yet, these same sites that are quick to talk about the implication of the SCOTUS’s same-sex marriage ruling. They are also the same sites that publish endless articles about pre-marital sex and other people’s sex and sexuality, but given the opportunity to talk about sexual violence they remain silent on the issue more often than not. They fail to realize that sex is an issue of social justice  which means that sexual abuse is a stifling of that justice. Christian silence on the matter suggests that the only sex we ought to care about is consensual sex between married and unmarried people or non-consensual sex between pastoral authority figures and those under their care; i.e. Catholic priests, youth pastors, senior pastors, and others in roles of power. Yes I said it. There’s no problem publishing articles on these men, but usually in doing this, the women, the victims, are left behind. Christian silence on Cosby, also suggests that maintaining the pristine image of the fictional figure of Cosby in American consciousness deserves more attention than the heinous crimes he committed.

I’ve heard some people remark about the loss of one of America’s greatest father figures and, as most of us know, Cosby’s confession has led to several networks pulling “Cosby” and “The Cosby Show” off the air. My problem with this is that it isn’t important in the grand scheme of things. I will suffer the loss of a fictional figure if it means that, in reality, a woman gains her wholeness back. Since the allegations against Cosby started, many questioned his victims accounts. I’d be remiss if I didn’t confess that, initially, I was skeptical about the veracity of the multiple victims’s claims. I understand that for many it was hard to believe that our fictional father, the lover of Jell-O pudding pops, the funny guy with the ugly sweaters, was guilty of raping countless women. He has lived as a moral exemplar in our consciousness for so long–for at least as long as I’ve been on this earth. So, for at least 34 years, Bill Cosby has been a moral exemplar for dads all over the world and his family has been the template for every wannabe perfect black family.

So I get it, given this it was hard to strip him of his illustrious title when the allegations broke. But this is also the problem with our culture, we exalt public figures to god-like status and sometimes conflate their fictional selves with their actual selves if they’ve graced our television screens for long enough to leave a mark.

(SN regarding the show: What we ought to grieve, if we grieve anything connected to the show, is the fact that people are so blithely unaware of the affirmation of patriarchal values implied in taking the show off the air. By this I am suggesting that taking the show off the air communicates that the most important person on the show was Bill Cosby/Cliff Huxtable and it discounts the power and value of the influential female leads. Personally I learned a whole lot more from Claire than I did Cliff, so I hate the idea of killing Claire with Cliff. I believe her legacy in black consciousness is just as strong and worth keeping the show in syndication.)

Back to the lecture at hand: To grieve the loss of Cosby the fictional dad before you part your lips to say a word about the matter of rape culture that pervades this entire situation is to idolize the man and sin against your brother and your sister. The idol must be destroyed and the people, the victims, must be built up. But first, people have to admit that rape culture is the most important issue at hand here and that it must be talked about.

A few people got the Cosby story right by calling it what it is, “Rape Culture.” In this context rape culture is, as public intellectual Marc Lamont Hill states, “NEEDING Cosby to admit he’s guilty before we believe it.” Rape culture is more news headlines saying nothing about rape in their coverage of the Cosby case. Rape culture is putting a statute of limitation on the amount of time a woman has to report her sexual assault before no legal action can be taken or it won’t be taken seriously. Rape culture is every action that gives more power, even if only rhetorical, to the rapist over caring for the victim. And finally, rape culture is every Christian who is silent on this or thinks that the discussion of rape culture within the context of Cosby case is a distraction. I’m here to say it is far from a distraction if you consider the sheer volume of sexually abused bodies that line church pews Sunday after Sunday. Given this, talking about Bill Cosby without talking about rape culture is the real distraction. And continuing to be silent and/or talk about the wrong thing in cases like these will only serve to further wound the wounded.

I don’t wait anymore.

I kind of wish I wrote this because I agree with much of what the author said. The theology this young woman discusses wreaked havoc on my life, a type of havoc I am still trying to recover from. The “cause” and “effect” theology of “If you wait to have sex, then you will be blessed” is damaging because that isn’t necessarily the case. As I’m wont to argue, the “If you do good, then you’ll prosper” formula went away with Job and Solomon and we are existing in the “If you do good, you might prosper or you might not and either way it’s still all good–and all God.” (I can unpack this at another time.) You will not be more blessed because you waited to have sex or less blessed because you didn’t. Your husband or wife won’t arrive any faster because you abstained nor will he or she delay because you didn’t. I’m not saying this is license to be reckless but I am willing to say that type of theology is reckless and slightly unsubstantiated–at least if you have any empirical evidence from your fellow brothers and sisters in Christ that says the opposite. Lord there is so much more I could say, but I want folks to read the original post and formulate their own thoughts. What do you think?