A & E, Opinion

In Light of Director’s Past, Fictionalized Rape Scene Spoils “Birth of a Nation”

As an avid movie watcher and reviewer, I never let the personal lives of filmmakers alter the way I critique a film. What an actor or director does when the cameras aren’t rolling has no effect on the quality of the film they’re making. However “The Birth of a Nation” is a rare case where I can not separate the art from the artist.

Photo of reporter Dustin Kogler
Reporter Dustin Kogler (Adeena Rose Wade / The Independent)

“The Birth of a Nation,” premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year before receiving a nationwide release on Oct. 7 and hitting $8 million at the box office, tells the true story of slave Nat Turner. In 1831, Turner led a rebellion with fellow slaves against their owners. Nate Parker starred, directed and co-wrote the movie.

The film received critical acclaim, winning the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival. It also sports an approval rating of 77 percent among critics on the website “Rotten Tomatoes.” However, the film and its director have been the subject of controversy in the months leading up to its release.

In 1999, Parker and film co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping an intoxicated classmate while attending Penn State University, as reported by The New York Times. Parker was acquitted in 2001 while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault. Celestin’s case was later appealed.

According to The New York Times, the trial was followed by a civil suit brought by the accuser against Penn State alleging Parker and Celestin harassed her and the school failed to discipline them. The suit was settled with Penn State for the amount of $17,500.

All the while, Parker has maintained his innocence. “I was falsely accused,” he said in an interview with “Good Morning America.” “I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.” Parker also said this “isn’t about him” and that the focus should be on Turner.

Normally, I would agree with Parker. We should focus on the importance of Turner’s story and not the legal troubles of the people behind the film. However, Parker has seemed to alter history in “The Birth of a Nation” and what’s added seems eerily similar.

During the course of the film, three white men raped Turner’s wife, Cherry Turner. This assault motivates Turner to lead his rebellion to avenge his wife. This has come under scrutiny due to the rape being fictionalized.

The Birth of a Nation movie poster

“There’s no reference to that,” Clark history professor Van Forsyth said after researching Nat Turner. According to Forsyth, Turner was a deeply religious man, and reportedly saw “signs of God” urging him to rebel.

Although Turner was married in his 20s, Forsyth, whose expertise is in U.S. history, said that the two were separated because they were sold to different owners.

With the inclusion of a fictional rape in his film, it feels like Parker is distorting history to declare his innocence once and for all.

“This kind of portrayal reinforces the idea that men’s experiences matter more than women’s,” Kushlani de Soyza, a Clark women’s studies professor, wrote in an email. “It implies that the central problem with sexual violence against women is that it damages another man’s property.”

She also said that depicting rape as a simple plot point is flat-out wrong, “especially when a writer or filmmaker uses women’s suffering as a way to glorify or motivate male characters.”

These allegations resurfaced while promoting the film. The controversy reached its boiling point when “Variety” reported that Parker and Celestin’s accuser committed suicide in 2012. This caused the American Film Institute to cancel its screening of the film in August, and rape activist groups held a silent protest with a candlelight vigil earlier this month at ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood.

As someone who reviews films, I try my best to not let the personal life of an actor or a filmmaker sway my opinion when critiquing. “The Birth of a Nation” is a rare exception. Given how Parker is both the face and brain behind the film, and how he’s altered history in his movie to shine a better light on his character, I cannot support this film. Turner’s story is important and should be taught, but in a way that’s respectful and accurate to what actually happened.

One Comment

  1. I haven’t seen the film but appreciate this article. It might have been important to mention that D. W. Griffith’s iconically racist film “The Birth of a Nation” (1915) included a scene of attempted rape of a white woman by a black man. I assume that Parker’s 2016 film is, at least in some way, a response to Griffith’s considering the films share a title. The stereotype of predatory and insatiable black male sexuality has long been used by whites to justify the separation of the races to protect “white women’s virtue” and the “purity” of the white race. By taking artistic license to include a rape scene in his film, Parker may have been attempting to remind viewers that sexual violence toward women has not been limited to black on white, and that black men feel as much outrage about black women being raped as white men have about the opposite. Now, as Kushlani de Soyza noted, the entire framework is flawed since both films “[use] women’s suffering as a way to glorify or motivate male characters.” I applaud you, Dustin, for including de Soyza’s observations and urging readers to see this gender problem in the plot. However, I can’t help but think Parker included a rape scene in an effort to counter that in the 1915 picture. You might know that historians consider the 1915 film a key element in the national resurgence of the Ku Klu Klan in the 1920s. The depiction of black characters in that film being sexually aggressive toward white women was particularly effective tool in manipulating/reinforcing white audiences’ perceptions of black men.

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