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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Selma Wasn’t Snubbed, It Just Is What It Is

Academy Award nominations were announced this morning and with it came headlines that Ava DuVernay’s “Selma” was snubbed. Before I knew of what and who was nominated I knew that “Selma” was snubbed so I nearly assumed that the movie didn’t get any nominations, yet that wasn’t the case. “Selma” received two nominations, one for Best Picture and another for Best Original Song. This is still significant and it looks like DuVernay thought enough of the nominations to symbolically gift them to the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. on his birthday.

Alas, everyone else is on the snubbed life and up in arms, but I wonder if this is the reaction we need for something that is par for the course. My title says, “It is what it is,” which is what I say when I decide to just accept something as it is.

2012 demographics of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences

More often than not black films, actors, directors, etc are snubbed more than they are nominated. It is to be expected given the demographics of  organizations such as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences. An organization that, despite its black female president Cheryl Boone Isaacs, boasts a predominantly white and over age 60 while male voting membership. It is what it is. Thus it makes me wonder if we need to stop looking for approval by way of these white men and their awards and just affirm ourselves–and also not snub the value of awards that come from black organizations such as the NAACP Image Awards and the like. Popular opinion–also usually the opinion of white people in positions of power–would have it that a nomination and award from the Hollywood Foreign Press and/or AMPAS is proof that we’ve arrived, but to set our sights on that approval as a sign of achievement is a disservice to ourselves. Reality is, we don’t need a Golden Globe or an Academy Award to know that we’ve arrived and done well. And we have to stop hoping for “them” to pat us on the back for telling our own stories. We are worth more than a piece of globe or man-shaped gold. We are history makers and we never needed an award to be the pioneers that we are.

Making history is what we do. We’ve gone from the people who were the victims in history to the people who are slowly carving out victory status in history–even while we are yet still victims. Whether we are making history for turning a hashtag into a movement that declares the value of black lives or because we directed great actors and actresses to retell our history through cinematic re-interpretation, we’ve never needed an award to advance and make known the power of our voices. Who we are seeking recognition from has to change.

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As a close friend said this morning, “Winning. #thatsall”

We don’t have another moment to hope someone will nominate us or throw us an award for work we already know is good. Not another moment to speak of a “snub,” how white the Oscar will be this year, how discriminatory the academy may be, nothing. I say this because I’m tired of us waiting for someone to acknowledge our greatness when it has always been inside us. We don’t need anyone to give us an award to know we are good. We may want the award but we really don’t need it and it really shouldn’t change anything in a world where the scales are rarely tipped in our favor. The biggest mistake we can make nowadays is to be fooled into believing we’ve been snubbed because the collective “they” didn’t recognize us. We aren’t being snubbed, they are snubbing themselves in failing to acknowledge us. We lose nothing, they are the ones missing out. “Selma” was not snubbed because no value was taken away from the film in not getting an Academy Award nomination. Ava DuVernay was doing incredible work before the Hollywood Foreign Press and AMPAS ever thought to nominate her and she will continue to do incredible work. The same goes for David Oyelowo, Carmen Ejogo, Oprah Winfrey, et al.

The greatness of our work doesn’t hinge on its acceptance by some board of old white men but in our confidence in our own work and its power to teach and transform our own community. I’ve seen more people talk about how “Selma” has convicted and moved them to action than anything else and I think that’s the best award.