The FX TV show The People v. O.J. Simpson argues that the O.J. Simpson trial basically predicted social discourse in America for the next 20 years. The painful, and often times confusing, intersectional conflicts between white people, black people, and the women that comprise half of both groups, all would come to define so much of what we’re so acutely aware of today. It was all there, clear as day, in what everyone was calling “The Trial of the Century” (a moniker that is looking less and less like hyperbole with each passing year). Today, we are seeing a storm on the same wavelength of that legendary trial heading towards the Oscars next year. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation tells an important story about America’s dark history, but it also reclaims a meaningful title from the original 1915 Birth of a Nation, a racist propaganda film that also happens to be one of the most influential films ever created. The original Birth of a Nation was a technically incredible breakthrough in film making technique and directing, but it also happens to be a horribly bigoted story about how the KKK was really a heroic force in America. By all accounts, what Nate Parker is doing, especially in light of the Oscars controversy of this year, is a great thing on the surface, but since the universe is a random and cruel thing, Nate Parker – A black man who co-wrote, directed, and starred in a movie about the racial injustice of America’s past which includes his fictionalized wife being gang raped by white men, is himself an accused rapist (along with his black friend who he co-wrote the film with, making them alleged gang rapists) whose trial was an intensely harrowing experience for all parties involved, but mostly for the victim who eventually took her own life after its conclusion and Parker’s acquittal. Clearly, there’s a lot to talk about here.
The Perfect Storm
Fresh off the heels of the #OscarSoWhite controversy, both the academy and the public were largely hoping to move beyond that by seeing black stories gain some recognition. This movie about black liberation and a slave uprising seemed like the perfect out, a film the academy could eagerly honour to bury the controversy once and for all (at least in their view), and one that would delight the large audience that was looking to see black films and actors get honoured. It looks like that dream is no longer in the cards due to Nate Parker’s past, and honestly, that shouldn’t be treated as the great tragedy of this story. Coverage of Parker’s past in light of this year will invariably lead to the talking point of “what about his Oscar chances though?” but that really shouldn’t matter at this point should it? It does because of how society has responded to this case’s renewed spotlight, but it shouldn’t because at the very core of things, these are two men that likely raped a woman (reading through this comprehensive account of events will probably have you feeling more certain about the rape than just “likely”), that moved on with their lives (while she tragically did not) to sell a big movie to Hollywood. But that’s a gross oversimplification of events to posit in light of the complex society we live in, so here’s a more applicable one. These are two black men, that almost certainly raped a white woman who would later go on to take her own life, while these two black men would go on to sell a film about black struggles that has already gotten tremendous award season buzz in a year where many people felt black stories were not being recognized, and where racial tensions within society have feel as though they have risen dramatically. Logically it should just be another Hollywood rape case (ala Roman Polanski), but due to intersecting racial and sexual politics, this one’s a powder keg.
Why it Stings
I remember sitting in my University class learning about the history of slavery when my professor posited a commonly held notion about the nature of racism and what it’s really about at its core. From the racial slur shouted at you as you’re walking down the street, to the large scale presidential campaign actually helmed by literal white nationalists, racism was really about preventing miscegenation. It was for making sure your race’s women were kept away from the other one’s men, all in an effort to ensure racial purity and control over your society’s women. The hyper sexual and lust-driven black man was the boogie man white men historically used to demonize and abuse black men, and the symbolism of the ritual of castrating lynched black men was not lost on scholars. The reprehensible murderer of Emmett Till painted a more clear cut image of this dynamic when you read about what really triggered him. These rage fueled actions and desire for aggressive reprisals haven’t completely disappeared from certain white men to this day, but in a disturbing twist, it’s taken a different reception from different groups. These days, nothing gets a racist more excited than the news of nonwhite rapists. A prominent black man being exposed as a rapist is basically racist Christmas, a gift that keeps on giving, and to see a potential champion for black issues on the big screen and in real life turn out to be exactly as they assumed all black men are deep down, it must fill them with glee. As someone who was explicitly trying to champion numerous issues faced by black people in America, Nate Parker has utterly failed the black community. Unfortunately, a lot of us are still going to ceaselessly defend him, even though he doesn’t deserve it.
Because he’s not a hero, and he’s no Dark Knight either
Bringing up O.J. again and why The People v. O.J. Simpson was such a great exploration of modern America despite telling a story that was set in the 90’s, we need to understand the context behind fierce support of black idols. The People was so great partially because it was able to expertly craft that very context in its retelling of O.J.’s trial, and explore a community of disaffected people with a strained relationship with the idea of success and prestige. The black community is shown as a group that collectively believes there are people out there with a vested interest in seeing successful black people brought down, and while they are shown plausible reasons to support that notion (like in the case of the LAPD detective Mark Fuhrman who makes a convincing case for many that he’s a repugnant racist), many black people ultimately use instances of racism for justification in unjustifiable situations. We wanted to protect O.J. because he was a successful black man and there were clearly racist elements at the LAPD, but it was bleedingly obvious the man was a murderer. The same instinct existed during the sexual assault trial of Nate Parker when he allegedly organized a concerted harassment campaign on the victim, and since she was a white woman, there was a racial narrative by the college’s Black Caucus that she was just some white chick crying rape to bring a black man down. The truth is so obvious, but we don’t want to see it because we believe it’s inconvenient. We think about stories like that of Emmett Till, and critics of miscegenation that say we threaten the “purity” of the white race and society, and we get offended at the mere notion that there’s literally anyone out there that resembles the stereotype in any way. O.J. Simpson didn’t deserve a defense force, Bill Cosby didn’t deserve a defense force, and Nate Parker doesn’t deserve the one he’s going to get. Sure Hollywood has clapped for sexual abusers Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, but in at least half the cases, the general public is (rightfully) eager to throw awful people under the bus as soon as it becomes clear that they’re awful. You don’t see anyone that isn’t a conservative defending Roger Ailes and Josh Duggars, you aren’t seeing an especially large coalition of people forming up to defend Stanford rapist Brock Turner. When the black community forms up to defend a man who likely did an awful thing, it’s harmful to all involved.
The 2017 Oscars are Going to be a Disaster
We already know the Oscars are going to suck for everyone because of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy and this film. There are only a few ways this can go. If it gets totally shut out from nominations due to this controversy, people are going to complain about it and come up with racial conspiracies about how Hollywood was out to get Parker. If it does get nominated and doesn’t win, there will also be complaints, only to a lesser extent, but with the added bonus of the awkwardness of having Nate Parker and his crew at the Oscars at all. If he does get nominations and actually wins awards despite the controversies, there will be complaints on all sides about how the Oscars are once again honouring a rapist. There is no winning scenario, the only constant will be jaded black people making ill conceived arguments defending Nate and gleeful conservatives picking them apart using his past as their tools. The complaints coming from black voices are already happening, and most of them fall into the trap of turning this issue into a double standards one. “Why isn’t there this kind of scrutiny for white people?”, they say, but that’s missing the point. The fact that there should be scrutiny for one party, doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be scrutiny at all for the party you support. Best example of this can be seen with the Larkin Grimm rape accusations on Michael Gira. In response to people criticizing her role in accusing black poet Thomas Sayers Ellis of being abusive as a racially motivated attack, Grimm decided to bring to light the rape she experienced at Gira’s hands, saying “He’s a white guy, and his crime was far worse than what Thomas did to me or Margaret”. Notice how the solution here isn’t to exonerate Ellis for the things he did, but to hold a white man she knew to the same standards. Her white rapist didn’t suddenly make Ellis an innocent man, and Gira’s defense of calling his rape of Grimm an “awkward mistake” is no better than saying his crimes don’t matter because some other party isn’t receiving the same scrutiny. They’re both evasive statements that avoid the heart of the matter. He did something wrong, everyone knows about it, and he is paying for it (although not in the courts as some would prefer). Nate Parker’s case shouldn’t be different. That awful self-important Deadline piece that was done on him in a badly thought out attempt to get ahead of the controversy came off more as a him twisting what happened as a teachable moment for himself than anything resembling sincerity. It’s just another example of people trying to twist around the truth to get to a desirable conclusion that they haven’t really earned. Look, I’m not of the opinion that if someone does bad things in their past, they are awful for life and can’t be redeemed. It’s not hard for me to believe that Nate Parker has changed as a person and isn’t the same guy he was many years ago, but so what? Whether you’re as contemptible as O.J. Simpson or as contrite as Parker seems to be, it doesn’t change the fact that he did a bad thing and there are consequences for it. As I pointed out before, there is no situation where Parker comes out of this completely fine, and his Oscar chances along with his very career may even be shut down completely over this, and if that is the case, those would simply be the consequences as they manifest. It doesn’t matter if he’s black, that you think you know famous white people who did something similar and didn’t get the same scrutiny, or that this news makes racists happy, Parker did something wrong and is facing the music in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, just as inevitable it seems that racists and white nationalists will fervently comment on this controversy with pleasure, we will be seeing a lot of people making total asses of themselves over this controversy that pits a lot of the black community against the rest of the world. But hey, that’s just the post-O.J. Simpson America we live in, a sentence anyone from the 90’s would assume was facetious but unfortunately is not.