Once upon a time, there was a lot of buzz for Actor/ Director Nate Parker as a potential Oscar winner, due to his lead performance in Birth of a Nation, a film about the Nat Turner rebellion. That film broke Sundance records, and presented a major African-American cast with several potential nominations after two years of #oscarsowhite. Then came the reports about an incident in Parker’s past, when he had been tried for rape. In the end, Birth of a Nation didn’t take any nominations. However, many black actors did, as well as director Barry Jenkins.
There were similar questions about Casey Affleck, who had settled out of court regarding accusations of sexual abuse several years ago. He ended up winning Best Actor, leading some to speculate that there is racism in Hollywood that will punish black actors for discretions forgiven white actors. The question worth asking is whether this is an accurate summary?
I’ll note at this point that I saw Birth of a Nation. I thought it was a fine film, on the level of movies that have won Oscars in the past. My comments are more about perception than an actual comparison of artistic merit.
I am of the view that the only thing that matters is the thing being graded. If you’re determining whether a performance was good, it really doesn’t shouldn’t matter what the actor does in their private life. So, I’d disagree with Constance Wu’s view that the academy shouldn’t nominate someone with a troublesome past. This doesn’t mean that anyone should be happy to hand over an award to someone who may be a reprobate. There’s nothing wrong with Brie Larson’s lack of applause.
Birth of a Nation was initially rewarded for things that didn’t have anything to do with quality. Hollywood wanted to give awards to a film by a young black director, as well as a movie about racial issues in which minority characters had agency, after criticism that the only nominated films were about slaves or servants. There was a narrative that the film’s initial flaws were ignored until the skepticism, with detractors afraid to give their honest opinions until that became a politically correct option.
I first saw “The Birth of a Nation” in April, at the News Corp headquarters in New York. As I waited for it to begin, I heard someone sigh loudly and say, “You know, I almost don’t want to see this now. When you know something’s gonna be so good—and so important—you kind of wanna wait.” That word, “important”—along with its cousins “powerful” and “necessary”—had figured in the first reviews of the film. Even critics who expressed a slight ambivalence about the movie’s artistic merits had chased those worries away by reminding readers how important it was to have Nat Turner’s story finally presented on an epic scale. Given the chronic exclusion of blacks in entertainment, it’s easy to understand the prevailing critical view that a work of art by a black artist about the bleakest episode in our history must, on these grounds alone, be worthy of our attention.
Birth of a Nation was the creation of the actor, and his codefendant was a cowriter. This leads to questions about their view of the world. The New Yorker’s Richard Brody summed it up.
An artist’s conduct alone, no matter how deplorable, doesn’t prevent him from making art that has significant merits. But a work of art is made by a person, and in this case by the same person who has gone on the road and spoken, inadequately and irresponsibly, of the event in his past. Here, too, the showcase for Parker’s character, intentional and otherwise, is all the broader: he directed the film, produced it, wrote the screenplay, and stars in it. Parker’s vices and virtues and those of the movie itself are dishearteningly inseparable.
From the moment of that original standing ovation, the movie has been a placard that invites the audience to project things onto it, and that’s what’s still happening. Only now the possibilities for projection have multiplied. Is “The Birth of a Nation” The Fearless Indie Movie That Tells The Great Slave Rebellion Story? Or is it The Sleazy Cover-up Of Nate Parker’s Collegiate Descent? Or is it Parker’s High-Minded Act of Atonement? Or — if it does indeed get shut out of the awards race — is it the victim of a collective media conspiracy, a kind of #OscarsSoWhite: The Sequel? The question, at this point, isn’t even how good or bad, provocative or banal a movie like “The Birth of a Nation” is. The question has become: Which lens are you going to see it through?
The reason the movie was tailor-made to be a set of symbolic signifiers has to do with how Parker, as a filmmaker, fails to draw us inside the story he’s telling.
There are a few differences between Affleck and Parker. The accusations and response weren’t equivalent for the two men. Parker’s cowriter was found guilty of the rape, and the woman went on to kill herself, which makes the story more horrifying and sordid, even if there is the counterview that the case had to be dodgy if a black man was acquitted of rape, and another black man was successfully able to appeal his sentence. Affleck also didn’t have to be a good man for the purposes of an Oscar nomination narrative. Hollywood isn’t going to be as excited about elevating a 40-something white guy; they’ve got plenty others. His performance will be judged largely on its own merits. He’s also not involved with writing or directing, so there isn’t the sense that it reflects his world view.
Birth of a Nation was the first film last year with a largely minority cast to get tremendous buzz. But this was an year with more, and that’s a forgotten aspect of the discussion. Loving quickly came along with high buzz, but was shut out of most major nominations for reasons that had nothing to do with a backlash against the people involved. Three films with primarily African-American casts: Fences, Moonlight, and Hidden Figures were nominated for Best Picture, and for five acting performances (in addition to one for Loving). Those films were credited for featuring the stories of African-Americans who weren’t slaves or maids, so in this environment, Birth of a Nation might still have been derailed by its leads being slaves at a time Hollywood decided they wanted something different.