Mayuran Tiruchelvam, screenwriter and producer, teaches filmmaking at Columbia University’s School of the Arts. His most recent production, The Untold Tales of Armistead Maupin, won the audience award at South By Southwest and premiered on PBS and Netflix in January 2018. Other films include The Girl is in Trouble, To Be Takei and My First Kiss and the People Involved.
On August 10, I saw director Nate Parker in person as he made brief comments at the opening of Sundance’s NEXT Fest in Los Angeles. Parker, whose film The Birth of a Nation won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award at Sundance this past January, had just received the institute’s Vanguard award and endowed a fellowship to support young filmmakers of color in Sundance’s Ignite program. I mentioned to a female friend that Parker seemed like a good dude who was serious about giving back. Having encountered a great number of dirtbags in this industry, I was happy for his success. I noticed my female friend shift uncomfortably as I spoke.
The following day I understood why – she knew about Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin’s trial for raping a fellow college student in 1999. During the 2001 trial, Parker was acquitted, in part to the jury’s antiquated notions that consent once equals consent forever. However, Celestin was found guilty and served time in jail. He was granted a retrial on appeal, and the case was dropped when the victim didn’t want to testify again.
On a sleepy Friday afternoon this August, Variety and Deadline each published interviews with Parker regarding the incident, ostensibly a move by distributor Fox Searchlight to get ahead of the story and control the narrative, in order to preserve the film’s chance of commercial success and awards glory.
I was disgusted by the cynical collusion between the studio and press to bury the story in Friday’s news dump, the emphasis on a film’s box office potential and Oscar hopes over the harm caused to a young woman – who, it was subsequently reported, committed suicide in 2012 – and Parker’s complete lack of accountability for his actions. Most of all, I was deeply disappointed that what seemed like an underdog success story, of a filmmaker hustling for seven years to make an important film, was actually just business as usual in old Hollywood, where a man’s behavior is excused by promise of future earnings.
In a series of subsequent interviews and statements, Parker attempted to correct his earlier wording on this issue. His most recent interview, published on Ebony.com, reveals a willingness to learn and grow, alongside a newfound familiarity with anti-sexist buzz phrases like toxic masculinity and rape culture. He also displays a reticence to confront the harm caused by his actions in 1999, and it remains unclear whether he actually feels he did wrong at all.
I know that people who commit violent crimes, including sexual violence, are redeemable. What redemption looks like is defined through a community process of restorative justice, but it begins with taking accountability for one’s actions and the harm they have caused. It starts with saying, “Yes, I did that and it hurt another person,” and then taking the steps to eliminate such harmful behavior from one’s life and one’s community. Often this process involves the voice and needs of the victim, although in Nate Parker’s circumstance this is impossible.
What, then, could the redemption of Nate Parker look like? Parker could receive training in trauma from organizations that work with survivors of sexual abuse, to give him a means of expressing his thoughts on the matter without causing further harm. He could use his public platform to support people actively working to end sexism, racism, and homophobia, investing in organizing infrastructure and supporting leaders at the grassroots level, rather than making self-aggrandizing public statements or writing checks to large national non-profit organizations.
As a filmmaker and activist who works with issues of oppression and social justice every day, I personally don’t think someone should declare themselves a leader on these issues, as Parker has done in recent interviews. Ally is a much wiser word, as it connotes being with – as opposed to being above – those most affected by oppression, supporting and spotlighting their voices. At the end of the day, isn’t it the hierarchy of power from above that perpetuates and reinforces racial injustice and gender inequality alike? If Parker takes steps forward into accountability, I hope he can also take a step back to see how he can meaningfully contribute to fighting injustice from behind the scenes, rather than being front and center, and leave his leading-man status for the big screen.
Just as colonialism took away the voices of millions of subjugated people, sexual violence often silences its victims. Not everyone who experiences trauma manages to heal, as we clearly see in the suicide of Parker and Celestin’s victim. She committed suicide after suffering a “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse…” Her internalized pain was not incidental – once the police began investigating the rape charges, Parker and Celestin allegedly set out to silence her with an “organized campaign to harass [her] and make her fear for her safety.”
With The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker strives to speak for the untold millions who died during chattel slavery, and continue to suffer through its descendent forms (prisons, debt and police brutality), but to claim to speak for one silenced group while suppressing the pain of another leads us further away from solidarity.
If, as Parker claims in his Ebony interview, he truly wishes to support those fighting against sexism, there are countless people he can help right now, right next door. Cisgender men like Nate Parker and me don’t have to think about Hollywood’s sexism. We never have to go into a meeting with a male executive or a colleague worried that they will attempt to leverage it into a “date.” We don’t have to fear spiked drinks, the ubiquitous “casting couch,” or sexual violence from fellow filmmakers. Furthermore, we don’t have to worry about daily harassment on the street based on our gender identity. This is male privilege, and we benefit from it every day.
That Nate Parker, lauded as a socially conscious filmmaker, admits to never considering male privilege is extremely worrying. Bro culture is so thick in Hollywood that I have always found it impossible to ignore – but most men’s eyes simply haven’t been opened to the basic existence of patriarchy. Therefore, one area where Parker can truly affect change is working with other men to address sexism in film. We can step up and fight to dismantle the casual old boys club that marginalizes women (and people of color, and LGBTQ folks) within Hollywood. It’s easy to turn our attention elsewhere – to college campuses and other battlegrounds – while ignoring the ugliness that’s right in front of our faces.
Additionally, I think all filmmakers need to examine how rape and sexual violence function as a narrative trope in our films. In The Birth of a Nation, the fictionalized rape of Nat Turner’s wife, Cherry, becomes a motivating incident toward his armed rebellion. Typically, we see how the incident impacts him and his struggle, not her. In my film The Girl is in Trouble, I was similarly inconsiderate, portraying an attempted rape without exploring its impact on the female survivor, who is depicted as sexually promiscuous, intoxicated, and untrustworthy. Instead, I focused on how this incident affected the male protagonist’s dramatic choices. This clichéd writing decenters the female experience solely in favor of a man’s growth. We can all do better. We must do better.
So, when the film is released next month, should audiences support The Birth of a Nation? Having seen it at Sundance, I consider it a well-made piece of populist cinema, comparable to Braveheart in terms of entertainment. It is not the harbinger of a new anti-racist cinema, but its simple message can contribute to conversations on America’s racist history. Parker and his film benefited from a major moment in history – Black Lives Matter and the #OscarsSoWhite call-out converged just as his film premiered at Sundance. Now he faces another historical convergence – the growing awareness of patriarchy and mass outrage at lenient sentences granted to accused rapists.
Through all the P.R. maneuvering designed to win back an audience, I sense Nate Parker’s genuine willingness to change yet see merely glimpses of his desire to engage with his past actions. As a rising star whose personal narrative – a struggling artist with a strong passion for racial justice – was essential to his ascent, this same stardom seems to prevent him from taking accountability with humility and grace. Just as he’s asking America to truthfully confront its racist past and present, he needs to admit the harm that he caused, deal with the financial consequences of a diminished box office or potential civil suit, and step forward as a man actively changing a culture that continually dehumanizes women and empowers men. If Parker is able to do this, we should all support him in his journey to redemption, for through this reckoning can come real change and true grace.