NOTES ON NATE PARKER. AND I AIN’T BEING PETTY

Earlier this year, I posted on Spike Lee’s Facebook feed to get the word out to Nate Parker that he needed to produce the Birth of A Nation cast tshirts and sell them to the public. I said “I want him (Nate Parker) to make all the money.” Cut to a few months ago and the news of the rape case that began Nate Parker’s downward spiral in my eyes.

Official cast and crew tshirt from Nate Parker’s film, BIRTH OF A NATION

I was slightly aware of Nate Parker. I remember his face on the movie poster for Beyond the Lights. The film comes up in my Netflix feed often, and while I intend to watch it one day, I have nothing invested in this man’s rise or fall. I can only say that I was proud when I read about how his version of Birth of A Nation came to be.

I’ve read the history of black cinema, mostly beginning with Oscar Micheaux. And I have lived through a lot of 20th and 21st century black cinema, from Sweet Sweetback’s BaadAsssss Song to I’m Gonna Get You Sucka’ to She’s Gotta’ Have It to Boyz N The Hood to Boomerang to Devil In A Blue Dress to Dreamgirls to 12 Years A Slave. And I can tell you how geeked me and all of my friends were, when these movies, especially in the 80s and 90s were being made. Each film release was a proud moment.

So in the 21st century for this young black actor, still a relative unknown, in comparison to someone like Denzel Washington, to write, direct and star in this epic period piece, using his own money and funds he raised, is a feat. And then to take it to Sundance and get a distribution deal with a major studio, is an amazing accomplishment in and of itself. Which is what makes this whole situation even more maddening. You had this Nate Parker, and you fucked it up. Not petty black women or anyone trying to take the black man down. You alone, Nate Parker.

I was prepared to sit by the sidelines and see how the film fared over opening weekend. Then I came across a family member’s post of a photo of an almost empty theater and her disappointment that black filmgoers were not there to support in larger numbers. I engaged her with a bit of background about why some people might not be in support of the film.

She countered with limited understanding of Parker’s involvement in the film, and “wished the rape case was not a part of it”, that this was an “important film”, and she was able to separate the art from the artist.

And all of that is where I took issue. This person, like many others, was ready to support something wholeheartedly, without really knowing the significance of the film title, Birth of A Nation, without knowing the full extent of Parker’s role not only as an actor, but in the making of this film, without knowing how the film came to be made, and without knowing the controversy surrounding the filmmaker. She only knew that it was a film about a historical black figure and that black people should support it full stop. And therefore her only explanation for why the theater was not full was that blacks don’t support one another, and the studios may have set this whole thing up as a conspiracy to not support future black filmmakers. Insert extreme rolling of the eyes and a thought bubble with “Ugh.”

First off I’m so tired of that “blacks don’t support one another” trope, especially when I look at how young black artists have proliferated in the 21st century with the advent and use of technology and social media. Black Twitter anyone? It’s been a game changer for getting our collective and united voices heard. So I call bullshit on that argument, which let’s me know that the person I’m conversing with is living in a bubble. Hell, she didn’t even know what a podcast was until I told her, a month ago. So I know she’s not hip to The Read, The Friend Zone, Blavity, AfroPunk, Issa Rae and Awkward Black Girl or Insecure, Awesomely Luvvie, Very Smart Brothas, Love Life of An Asian Guy, Donald Glover’s Atlanta… You get the picture.

My second point is, why is this an important film? Because it is a rare telling of a historical black figure and therefore all black people must support it? Reviews thus far have been mixed, so I don’t know if the film is good or not. And let’s not forget that this film became a Sundance darling directly after the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Therefore, it could have initially been championed as a way to deflect the criticism of the Academy, and be mediocre, at best, and therefore not so important after all.

If someone truly wants to know the story of Nat Turner, they can read a historical account of events. This movie is an adaptation and some parts of the movie didn’t take place in history, including the rapes upon which the movie revolt are based. Insert thought bubble: “Given your history, why are you including fake rape scenarios in your film, Nate Parker & Jean Celestin?”

Which brings me to my next point when I was presented with the argument that some people don’t like to read. Insert thought bubble with “Ummm, that is not a valid point. AT ALL.” Those people who don’t like to read, are some of the same people who believe everything they see in a movie is “based on actual events.” It bothers me that some people, who have cursory knowledge of a subject, will see this film and believe everything in it as fact and not understand it is based on a true story, which does not mean factual.

This is why it’s so important for people to read about and research what they choose to support. While I advocate for more stories about black historical figures and heroes being told, I’m just not sure I want to support this endeavor. Personally, I’m not caping for anyone just because they’re black. There are plenty of artists whose work, words and deeds I respect more. The art is good and the artists are not problematic, and I will therefore, in good conscience, support them.

And on the subject of his words and deeds, Nate Parker’s are entirely problematic. Problem #1, he brought his friend onboard this film, as a writing partner, who took part in and was initially convicted in the rape case. That tells me that he saw nothing wrong with the conduct of his friend, even in hindsight.

Problem #2, from my POV Parker hasn’t been empathetic or remorseful enough about how the sexual assault affected the victim, nor has he evolved enough to understand the current conversations around consent and rape. He seems to still have the same mind set that led him and Jean Celestin into being accused of rape in the first place — opportunistic and entitled.

For me he is an example of “fake woke”. He will talk about the importance of black history, heroes and empowerment, yet Parker can’t seem to find concern or empathy for other groups of marginalized people. He is the equivalent of shouting “All lives matter” in the middle of a conversation about Black Lives Matter (BLM) without knowing or caring why BLM is being vocal in the first place.

It’s as if recognizing that he made poor decisions in the past, threatens his self perceived innocence. Maybe on some level, in his mind, it truly does, but as the saying goes, “when we know better, we do better.” However, Parker has continually presented himself as void of empathy, unapologetic, and almost angry at having to answer questions about the rape case, with a side of “As a Christian man…” thrown in. And in case you hadn’t heard Nate Parker, being a Christian man doesn’t mean shit to a lot of people. So again, it is a case of living in a bubble and not realizing that everyone around you may not have the same experiences or have the same ideas about how the world operates.

I want to be clear that I am not advocating not seeing the movie. Every individual has to do what makes sense for them. I just wish that people would not jump on bandwagons or to conclusions when they have little knowledge about what they are advocating for. Some people are “fake woke” and don’t even know it.

What good can come from this is Parker’s success at bringing Nat Turner’s story into view, which may encourage curiosity for further learning about this figure and others in our history. Perhaps it can also spark discussion about the enormity of what Parker in fact did accomplish, and the need to sometimes separate the art from the artist.

And lastly, when my family member discusses this film with her son, in his first year of college, perhaps this is a teachable moment to discuss college campus drinking, sex, rape culture, consent and how to carefully choose the people with whom you surround yourself — insert thought bubble of Malia Obama drinking while being filmed by her “friends” — and ultimately how actions can sometimes have longstanding and irreparable consequences, so choose wisely.


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