Friday, August 19, 2016

The Death of The Birth of a Nation?

Nate Parker (middle) as Nat Turner in Birth of a Nation
The subject matter of actor/director Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation, a dramatization of Nat Turner's uprising and rebellion of slaves and free black people in August of 1831, is an extremely important American story to tell and this film is providing an opportunity for an audience (American and worldwide) to better understand the events leading up to the uprising, and the end results, or rather, horrible repercussions. After its debut this past January at the Sundance Film Festival, where Fox Searchlight paid a record $17.5 million for distribution rights for the film, it signaled that Birth was going to be heralded as THE film to turn the tide at the next Oscars broadcast. The industry desperately needed a film and performances by non-white actors to get behind and showcase as the film to win next February. The reason for this is to make up for two consecutive years of the Oscars not being diverse enough in the acting, directing, and film categories. A lot is riding on the success of Birth of a Nation, regardless of how controversial and raw the film is, the industry and backers of the film, need it to succeed for the symbolism of industry diversity in honoring artistic achievements when the 2016-17 award season ends next February at the Oscars.

But that all came to a screeching halt last weekend when on a promotional interview, writer, director and actor of Birth, Nate Parker, candidly made reference to his past criminal investigation of a rape in 1999 while a student at Penn State. Although he was found not-guilty due to a technicality, basic information about this situation was on his wikipedia page for quite a while. But because Nate has been an actor who has been under the radar in the past 10 years of his acting/directing career, not a lot of people were aware of him, let alone the public records of his 'transgression' at Penn State in 1999. In what I believe was an attempt to be open and seemingly remorseful about his past, Nate opened this conversation up to a much wider public audience where 98% of us did not know about this rape case. Like most people, I'm not in the habit of when I first learn about a public figure, I don't go directly to his/her wikipedia page to learn more about them. I just read the general article that is written about them, and leave it at that. So it's not like this rape case was being suppressed or anything, the basic gist of it was there on his wikipedia page... but not the gory details, which are just now being shared to the rest of us who had no clue about the rape case period.

In the past several days, we've come to learn that Nate's writing partner, Jean Celestin, was also involved in the rape case. But unlike Nate, Jean was actually found guilty - but six months later, in a failed re-trial, he was exonerated. So now that's three brand new pieces of information to soil the film: 1. a rape, 2. friend found guilty but Nate off on a technicality, and 3. friend eventually exonerated. But as people become curious, disgusted and then more outraged about this new old information, more shovels come out to dig up more dirt. We come to learn that the technicality that got Nate cleared was only because he had a sexual encounter with the girl a day before. So yah, it's ok then to have sex with her unconscious body a day later! Not!

It gets worse. There is a phone transcript between the girl and Nate where she states how confused (she was drunk and blacked out) she was and curious as to how many more guys were in the room. Nate totally blew her off and made like she knew what was going down and he was very hesitant to let her know that Jean was part of the sexual encounter too. There was also a third guy involved. He was in the dorm room with Nate, Jean and the girl, and when he saw her unconscious body laying on the bed while Nate was having his way with her, he told authorities that Nate invited them both to join in! Jean joined in raping her, but the other guy left because he knew it was wrong and didn't want to have anything to do with it. For clarification, to me, a person is being raped when they are heavily drugged or intoxicated, and cannot freely agree to having sexual relations with one person... let alone a second person. Ok?

Reports from the case, and testimony from the girl lay bare how devastating this attack was to her. The young woman was already fragile having coming from a broken home, foster care, and battling depression. Even after dealing with such personal turmoil, she was very bright and was a straight A student. She worked two jobs, and had a scholarship to Penn State. She explained how she was so confused and scared about not knowing what happened to her that previous night as she woke up very sore and knew she had been raped. She was in such a physical state, she could not walk well and she said that her vagina was literally painful and felt like it was shredded. The Daily Beast wrote a most thorough, chilling, and compelling article about the entire case. Anyone with a hint of compassion for a rape victim will be terribly disturbed by the recounting of the events. The harassment that the victim experienced to keep her from testifying in the second trial is awful. It appears that the department of athletics at Penn State and students supporting Nate and Jean made life on campus for the girl unbearable, embarrassing, and under constant threat.

She attempted suicide twice within a 10 day period in late 2002-ish, but eventually fell down a self-destructed path of no return and died on her third suicide attempt in 2012. Her family states that the rape and the trial and the harassment destroyed her and lead to her killing herself. The stress and feeling of helplessness from her attack, broke her down mentally, and she was never able to recover.

Fortuitously, with Nate Parker bringing up this case in an effort to put it out there now and behind him as he prepares for Oscar season, we all now learn of the victim's fate, her death by suicide four years ago. This knowledge really pissed off people and added a new layer to this terrible saga. Apparently, the news of the victim's death came as a surprise to Nate, and he has written some lame ass soul cleansing post on his facebook. I don't care what the man has to say as I believe it's insincere. Based on what I know from public records of this case, he's an asshole who took advantage of a woman in the worst way, and left her in such a mental and physical state that she eventually killed herself years later.

Nation could still do ok at the Oscars - because people need it to
So now, Nate Parker and Fox Searchlight are trying to redeem him and help fix this PR nightmare in order to get Birth of a Nation on the road to winning tons of Oscars. After all, that's why Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million, a record amount of money for an indie film, so that it could be positioned to win Oscars. But I'm sorry, I was already on the fence about watching this movie. Some films I need to see in the theaters, others I patiently wait until I can stream it. That's what I'll do with Birth. I'm not giving this film a penny of my money to support it at the box office. I know that in an ideal world, we should separate the politics and negative ideas we have towards the talent that produces art, from the art they create. A film or piece of art should be viewed in appreciation of its own merits. But dammit, I cannot in this case, and that can be said for many others who feel the way I do.

There are those who are compelled to still watch this film, and I do understand why because this is an important story that needs to be told and watched.  People are anxious to see Nat Turner's story on the big screen - a long, long overdue account that again, needs to be told. Thus far the film has yet to receive outstanding critical praise, just very modest support. Yet again, another indication that this film is being handled with delicate gloves in order to position it to win big at the Oscars, in a shallow attempt to redeem the Oscars themselves from recent years of not valuing diversity in key award categories.

I cannot in good conscience support Birth of a Nation by going to see it, and I'll go a step further and write that I do not believe that this film should win Best Picture. I don't have much say or pull, but I think my sentiments are shared by a lot of people, especially those who are able to vote. Birth is also being positioned to be nominated in Directing and Actor for Nate. If the film were to overcome this PR nightmare, it would win just three years after 12 Years a Slave won Best Picture, another film about 19th century American slavery and the evils of that time. I personally wish that there was another type of American story about black life that was not related to slavery times in the position of being honored by the Oscars. But like those who make Halocaust films and documentaries, American slavery is a significant and horrific historical event that lasted over two hundred years (1619-1865) - much longer than the Halocaust in Europe; but these are stories that need to be told. However, the big major difference in a so called justification of the proliferation of Halocaust stories vs. American slavery stories, is that the Halocaust was a much more recent, and many actual survivors and some of the evil perpetrators are still alive. No American slaves or American slave owners are alive today... however, yes, the after effects of slavery itself still linger in this country at the detriment of many black Americans.

I want people to see Parker's Birth of a Nation if they want to, when it rolls out into theaters on October 7. I want Birth of a Nation to recoup its production costs - I don't want it to be an utter failure at the box office. And I want Nate Parker to eventually evolve and move on from his horrible actions of 1999. But I don't want him to be honored this year at the Oscars. I'm too disturbed by his actions from 17 years ago, and I think his actions are unforgivable as we are coming to learn the full extent of the sexual assault event. I don't hate Nate Parker, he is a flawed human being whose recent words appear false and lacking true humility. His words are designed only to protect the film's Oscar chances and to protect his legacy. But in the end, this is show business and the business end of it takes precedence, and Fox Searchlight is going to get their money back come hell or high water, and they will do whatever it takes to get at least one Oscar for this film. To that, I say, good luck, you'll need it because this week, Birth of a Nation's Oscar chances died.

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