The title alone was devastating – “The Birth of a Nation,” the same title D.W. Griffith appallingly used for his sickeningly heroic portrait of the founding of the Ku Klux Klan.
The trouble is that Griffith was both a racist and a genius. In that film of ghastly content, we’re watching the miraculous invention of a new grammar for a new medium for telling stories – on the screen. It was President Woodrow Wilson who called it “history written with lightning,” an immortal phrase lavished on a cultural moment simultaneously vile and revolutionary.
And then, at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker came along touse Griffith’s title for a new film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion.
As a gesture in the centuries-long struggle for civil rights in America, that was brilliant. Griffith’s film made heroes of night riders in hoods and white sheets. Parker’s film of the same name told the story of America’s most famous slave rebellion. Justice is seldom writ so large.
Parker had, by that fact alone, done something extraordinary. And according to most who have seen it, the film fulfilled its provenance and symbolism.
And then, just before its early October opening, came the story of Parker’s background just as devastating in its way as the title of the film.
A DARK PAST INDEED
In 1999, the film’s star, co-writer and director Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin, were charged with rape while they were students at Penn State. It was the young woman’s story that she passed out, awakened to discover Parker having sex with her while she was unconscious, passed out again and awakened to discover Celestin engaged in oral sex with her without consent.
The alleged victim reported the rape to both the college and the police. The police investigation made her accusations public to other students.
On Oct. 5, 2001, Parker was found not guilty. Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault. That verdict was overturned in 2005.
In 2012, the woman committed suicide. Her death certificate said she suffered from PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.
Parker, now married and the father of five daughters, told Variety “I got it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I know.”
After that, he and his accused co-writer found out for the first time about the woman’s suicide. “I see now” he wrote on Facebook “that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name.”
It’s going to take a genius in crisis management to get Parker anywhere close to sympathy now.
What we have now is just about the most explosive conflict between two righteous agendas I have ever seen. On one side, you have a film of widely reputed brilliance that, by title alone, has already exposed a cornerstone of cultural America to be ugly and corrupt. On the other side, you have an illustration of the “rape culture” that geometrically increasing numbers of women are not going to leave alone, now that the number of accusers has destroyed the career of a predatory entertainment giant (Bill Cosby) – as if he’d already been convicted of sexual assault.
There are many in the entertainment press who are framing this whole horrific collision of just causes as if it only mattered whether or not Parker’s progress toward the Oscars will be derailed. That is like talking about retired NFL players with permanent brain damage as having a potential deleterious effect on beer sales at NFL stadiums.
There is no place here for anyone of good will to stand in the collision brought to us by Parker’s “Birth of a Nation.” Righteousness is intrinsic to both sides.
The newer side is the increasingly prominent claims of a “rape culture” which is becoming more undeniable with each passing week. All the old sexual assumptions are collapsing in the spotlight. The Internet is bringing on a new kind of “history written with lightning.”
What all decent people have to grant is that it’s as far from grand as it once was in American culture to see Griffith’s seminal glorification of those with hoods and white sheets.
TEMPO VS. CONTENT
It is wrong to equate accusation with conviction. But those putting the spotlight on “rape culture” are never going to back off from their position that in a male-dominated America, every way to evade responsibility for sexual abuse has been exploited for decades. It is hard to argue that the spotlight is long overdue for shining in a lot of places where it was never permitted before.
The bigger thing to acknowledge is how many areas of sports and entertainment presume access to sex and willing women to be a natural professional perk. We have all been looking at those things the same way for so long that it’s impossible for many to see the ugliness that should now be obvious.
Fifteen years ago, liberals would have told you: 1) it would be 50 years at least before we’d see a black president; 2) same sex marriage would take just as long to arrive and 3) legalization of recreational pot was just as unlikely.
In the sickening collision of two just causes awakened by “Birth of a Nation,” which one should give first?
There is no way to discuss that as a substantive issue. There is only the tempo of change. It is going to happen. It already is.
The burden, though, of sympathy is probably now on those unwilling to allow change to be slow. In the Internet Age, speed of access is immediate.
If only human beings were built to change that radically, that quickly.