Opinion

Separating The Art From The Artist: What Should We Do?

Since the news of Nate Parker’s past, one question has been pushed to the forefront: “Should we still go see the movie?”

Nate Parker is talented, intelligent, handsome, and on my long list of celebrity men I’d marry if I ever got the chance.

If you aren’t familiar with him, Nate Parker is a Hollywood actor, director, and producer, most well known for his performances in historical dramas such as Pride, The Great Debaters, and Red Tails, as well as his work in other dramas including The Secret Life of Bees and Beyond the Lights.

Recently, however, Parker has become known as something else: a rapist. As we draw closer to the premiere of his highly anticipated directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation (a long-overdue account of the story of Nat Turner), details have emerged of rape allegations involving Parker and his then roommate, Jean Celestin (who also helped write the screenplay for The Birth of the Nation), during their sophomore year at Penn State. In 1999, the two were accused of raping an intoxicated and unconscious classmate who was unable to give consent. It eventually went to trial where Celestin was found guilty and Parker was acquitted.

When a celebrity messes up, some type of division usually takes place within the public. You’ll have those people who are dismissive of the act no matter how heinous it may be (i.e. Trump supporters, no shade), then you’ll have those people who call for a total boycott of the celebrity (i.e. Chris Brown being shunned by mainstream media after assaulting Rihanna in 2009).

This is where The Birth of a Nation finds itself in a sticky situation. Since the news of Parker’s past, one question has been pushed to the forefront: “Should we still go see the movie?”

There are countless numbers of times the public has been faced with this type of question.  Should we let the art suffer due to the artist’s actions? Bill Cosby, Michael Jackson, and R. Kelly (who I still will not support to this day. I’m sorry, but referring to yourself as the Pied Piper after being exposed as a pedophile is where I draw the line) are all examples of this. In relation to movies, Alice Through The Looking Glass didn’t perform as well as expected due to Johnny Depp’s domestic abuse allegations and there were debates last year over if Straight Outta Compton should be supported and celebrated due to N.W.A.’s misogynistic and controversial nature.

In the wake of his allegations coming to light, Parker sat down for an intensive Q&A session with Ebony Magazine. It’s lengthy, so I won’t summarize, but there were several high points that stood out to me.

The first is that he openly admitted he hadn’t thought about the alleged incident since being acquitted in 2001. This is extremely striking considering the fact I’m sure his accuser thought about it everyday, a woman who claimed she was harassed after reporting her assault and eventually committed suicide in 2012. It also stood out that just a few weeks ago, Parker himself flippantly said the situation was “litigated”.  [And that he] was cleared of it. That’s that.” Now he’s all of a sudden had a change of heart and is apologetic? These two things made me take a long, “Hmmmmmm….”

The thing that stood out to me most, though, is the fact that he claimed to have been ignorant of the definitions of rape and consent. He was 19 at the time of the alleged act. Maybe it’s because I’m a female and have been well-versed in the signs of rape culture and the “what-not-to-do’s” for many years (mainly for self protection), but I find it hard to believe a 19-year-old male on a college campus wasn’t sure if he was raping a woman or not. I mean, college campuses hold seminars all the time on this type of thing. And isn’t “no means no” a simple enough lesson?  Didn’t the victim claim to have been unconscious and unable to consent? Regardless, Parker claims he was unaware that what he allegedly did was wrong and that, at the age of 36, he’s still working on understanding the idea of consent. This produced an even longer “Hmmmmmm” from me.

But this post isn’t meant to cover rape, misogyny, and male privilege. That’s a different post for a different day (or book, rather). I’m asking the question, should we separate the art from the artist?

In terms of The Birth of a Nation, that’s what I’ve decided to do. I’m not one of those black conspiracists who’s going, “They only bringing this up now because it’s a movie about Nat Turner!,” but as a history buff, I am willing to look past this mess and receive the message, which at its heart is a story well worth being shared on the big screen.

As someone going into education, it’s second nature for me to find a lesson in everything.  Parker claims to have been murky on what consent and rape were at the time of his alleged incident. If that was truly the case, maybe it’s time for us to sit down with our children, especially our boys, and have this conversation with them, using it as a learning tool.  From a personal standpoint, I haven’t seen this many guys having serious conversations about rape and consent up and down my Twitter timeline since, well, ever.

While it’s a hard decision to make, and I’m sure this makes me a bad feminist, this is solely my opinion on trying to unpack this situation. Who knows? By taking my educational approach, we could be preventing several more incidents like Parker’s. We can’t stop them all, but I’m naive enough to believe it could help. Let’s start turning these controversies into conversations. Do it for the babies.

X’s and O’s,

JF

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