Navigating the Nate Parker Scandal:

The audience has the right to judge an artist on their moral fiber

It happened again: a dark skeleton from an artist’s personal life leapt into the light and brought the validity of their work into question. Deep into the press junket for The Birth of Nation, star/director Nate Parker is under fire for his part in an alleged rape that took place in 1999. Parker was acquitted, but the details of the incident — including the victim’s suicide in 2012 — have made it hard to look past.

Nate Parker joins a long and unfortunate list of famous artists who betray our trust — they betray the idea that we may access their work, learn from its humanity, and feel safe knowing that the voices behind it embody those same, worthwhile ideals. For if they do not, how true can those ideals be?

It is surely naive to assume that artists are better than anyone else. People are imperfect; sometimes they are terrible. But to reap the benefits of art, the audience submits to the emotional cues of the material. We expose ourselves to words, images, and concepts that have been manipulated for our consumption. The manipulators (artists) need legitimacy for us to accept the material. Hypocrisy makes for bad art — would you want to watch a family film made by a child molester? On a lighter note, would Michael Bay’s jingoistic American films still make millions if he were a pacifist Canadian? For the record, I have no clue if Michael Bay is Canadian or a pacifist. In most instances, intimacy with the artist is rare, so we take the art at face value. Thus, undergoing the art-audience exchange requires trust.

Given the frequency of scandals, it might require caution too. That scares me. I rely on art (mostly movies) to expand my mind, my soul, and my heart — to function as a human being. If that’s the risk to engage with art, however, I’ll take it. That’s life! A big, scary place where divorced directors make family films and no one cares. But in situations like these, when the controversy precedes the art, I will exercise my right to caution. I will judge a piece of art based on the artist, therefore I will judge art based on the severity and implications of the artist’s actions.

Although I have not seen it, The Birth of a Nation is meant to be a landmark film about the black experience in America. Parker both told the oft-overlooked story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion and positioned the film to make a real impact. There has been enormous financial investment from Fox Searchlight, stellar reviews, and plans for an educational roadshow to facilitate discussion. Parker’s goals are noble. However, this does not preclude viewers from boycotting the movie. The relative importance of the film is met equally by the need to both defend ourselves as consumers and to make a statement in support of sexual assault victims. His scandal does indeed damn the film.

People who are implicated in terrible events open their art to judgment. We examine the artists to find the strains of hypocrisy that compromise their work. I’m not suggesting that filmmakers must be paradigms of morality to make a movie. Were Parker’s scandal in regards to an ethically “lighter” issue (his questionable comments on masculinity, perhaps), it would be tougher to feel threatened by his art. In addition, I reiterate that the world is not a kind place, so why should we expect art to be any nicer? Art is as unpredictable as real life, too. For example, learning about Bill Cosby’s unconscionable, horrendous behavior now doesn’t negate the positive messages he made on The Cosby Show years ago. Cognitive dissonance is both a part of life and consuming art.

Unfortunately, Parker’s scandal is not the “light” material of tabloid gossip, or a knuckleheaded comment. Parker’s scandal concerns rape, an actual crime, the violation of another human being. Regardless of Parker’s innocence or guilt in the matter, it’s chilling to know the alleged victim committed suicide after suffering from PTSD from physical and sexual abuse. The consequences of the trial were extreme for both parties. She is dead and he only had the opportunity to make this film because he was acquitted of all charges. His proximity to her tragedy remains for the rest of his life. Furthermore, with his film unreleased, cognitive dissonance does not apply here. If I truly believe that rape is heinous, then I cannot knowingly support art made at the expense of a victim. So, I will never watch another episode of The Cosby Show. I don’t have to feel bad that I once did, but I do choose not to engage any more.

When people ask if we can separate artist and art, the answer is a resounding “No!” We cannot and we should not. The profile of the film has no bearing on the question, for no amount of perceived “importance” allows an audience to ignore the consequences of our participation. It is our money and our time which will legitimize Parker’s artistic expression of an important American figure. There is no way to praise his film or his incarnation of Turner without in turn supporting Nate Parker. If he were blacklisted from Hollywood forthright, I could watch his movie guilt-free, but that won’t happen. Thus, the imperative to judge him is not ambiguous in the least.

Boycott the film or pay to see it anyway, but know that your choice reflects on its creator — an innocent man or an acquitted rapist. Our judgement does not only affect the reception of this film, but more importantly if Parker will have the opportunity to make another. Ultimately, this depressing situation proves how potent pieces of art films are and that, sometimes, the most powerful message we absorb comes from not seeing the movie at all.

Author’s Note: Many thanks to Nicole Zhu for helping conceive, develop, and edit this essay. The text game has never been this academic or productive.