It has taken me a while — perhaps too long — to come to this conclusion.
This is, in part, because I’m an artist, and to me great art is one of the surest signs of God’s existence. From January onward, The Birth of a Nation — Nate Parker’s film about the slave rebellion of Nat Turner — has been hyped as great art. And I get it — it's not every day that a black writer and director makes a film about a slave rebellion to wide acclaim. But maybe I would have taken a stand about the film sooner were I a woman, or a victim of rape. Perhaps the right decision would have been clearer to me.
“Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or ‘important’ it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice.”
The woman she speaks of is known to the public only as “Jennifer,” in order to protect her family. The publicity surrounding Jennifer’s story is likely something her family didn’t prepare for. Much like how they likely couldn’t have prepared to lose Jennifer the way they did.
If you don’t know what I’m referencing, I’ll take a moment to explain: In 2012 Jennifer took her own life. More than a decade prior, in 1999, Jennifer accused Nate Parker and Nate Parker’s then-roommate Jean McGianni Celestin of raping her. All three were students at Penn State University at the time. The case went to trial, and Parker was acquitted. Celestin was not, but his record was later vacated.
Fast-forward to 2016 and Parker and Celestin are the two writers behind The Birth of a Nation. Jennifer is dead. And questions abound as to whether Parker and Celestin’s presence in her life led to her death.
All right, you may be thinking to yourself, it’s sad that Jennifer lost her life, but Parker and Celestin were legally cleared of these charges. Why does the case matter now? Isn’t this defamation?
This case matters because it is very difficult in this nation, in 2016, for a rape victim to successfully take their story to trial and receive justice in a court of law. So imagine how much more difficult this was in 1999. In a recorded phone call with Jennifer, Parker and Celestin admitted to having sex with her, despite her being “highly intoxicated,” according to several witnesses. Jennifer said she fell asleep and, when she woke up, Parker was raping her.
But Parker and Celestin were cleared of these charges.
To quote Roxane Gay again: “Well, legally, lots of things are allowed that shouldn’t be allowed.” I know that no one except Jennifer, Parker, and Celestin truly know what happened that night. But I also know, in my own life, several victims of rape whose rapists will never see justice — and it’s not from lack of trying. Our legal system condones it, and many of our colleges and universities are in the business of covering up issues rather than deal with them.
As I said, I think of art as one of the surest signs of God’s existence. But I can’t allow signs of God to overshadow God’s most cherished creation: us. Our fellow children of God.
I equate financially supporting The Birth of a Nation with ticket sales or a DVD purchase "because it's important" with supporting Brock Turner’s release from prison "because he’s a great swimmer and has potential." Both send a message to rape victims worldwide: They will always be ranked as lesser than their accuser, and lesser than something intangible.
Peter Travers of Rolling Stone casually dismisses commentary of this nature about The Birth of a Nation as “playing God stuff,” but I don’t think that’s necessarily wrong to do. Christians should strive to be Christ-like — it’s the nature of Christianity — and Christ called many times for his followers to protect the marginalized and the forgotten. In this instance, Nate Parker is not among the marginalized. He is the director of a film that sold at Sundance for $17.5 million. He has direct access to the press and has made his thoughts on the rape case known several times. He’s alive. Jennifer is not.
But this film IS important. It needs to be seen.
No, it doesn’t. I've watched the film, and I’m here to tell you there’s nothing innovative about The Birth of a Nation — nothing that challenges cinema, nothing that screams, “This is historic,” apart from the fact that it’s a historical drama. This film is subversive on paper, but onscreen it’s really no better than what’s come before. The hype around the film comes from the fact that it premiered days after #OscarsSoWhite, and the majority-white Hollywood film industry decided that, to clear its name of racism, it would throw its weight behind the first “black” film that came its way. Who can blame that? "Racist" isn’t an identity many people want to bear.
But in their attempt at atonement, Hollywood championed a film that didn’t deserve to be lifted up. The Birth of a Nation isn’t trash, but it’s definitely not the treasure many people want it to be.
If you want to support black film — if you want to further the development of stories, intended for the screen, about African American people — I suggest you wait until Oct. 21 to go see the film Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins, about a young black child in Miami who grows up in the city while dealing with the constant challenge of his homosexuality.
I suggest you buy a copy of 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, based on the autobiography of the slave Solomon Northup.
I suggest you watch the television drama Being Mary Jane, starring Gabrielle Union — who also stars in The Birth of a Nation and has publicly struggled to deal with the fact that her co-star was accused of rape.
But I do not suggest that you watch The Birth of a Nation. I will not go out of my way to see it again.