There was perhaps no movie more buzzed-about coming out of the Sundance Film Festival in January than Nate Parker's directorial debut, The Birth of A Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner's 19th century rebellion of enslaved people in Virginia.
By the time the festival was over, Nation had netted an unheard-of $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight Pictures. It was considered a frontrunner for a raft of major awards, and Parker, who had carved out a solid if largely below-the-radar career as an actor, seemed poised to become a filmmaker of serious consequence — one of a handful of black directors able to claim as much.
But as the summer wore on, and as Parker's stature grew, more people began paying attention to his past. During his days as a college wrestler at Penn State, Parker and his friend, Jean Celestin — who shares a writing credit on Nation — were each charged with raping a fellow student.
The Atlantic's Gillian White sketches out the broad, unsettling details of the case:
Court records show that in 1999, Parker and Celestin were accused of having sex with the woman while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and then harassing and intimidating her after she reported them to the college.
...Although Parker was cleared of assault in a court of law, the case endured after 2001, when he was acquitted and Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault; and after 2005, when Celestin won his appeal because the victim couldn't bring herself to testify again. It endured through 2012, when—as both the public and Parker found out this week—the woman killed herself, and it endures now because of Parker and Celestin's movie being widely heralded as a groundbreaking work of historical and racial significance.
Parker initially addressed the fresh attention to the rape trial this summer with language that was seen by many as tone-deaf and self-centered. "Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life," he told Variety. "It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That's that."
Those comments came in for more criticism after the brother of the victim told Variety in August that his sister committed suicide in 2012.
Parker attempted to respond again with more empathy for the victim, but the controversy changed the tenor of the conversation around Nation, a film whose performance and reception Parker had been eager to render in stark, moral terms. "If this film wins awards, but people see the film and behaviors don't change, than we have lost," he told an audience earlier this summer. "This must not be a film that comes and goes."
As many have pointed out, the fact of Parker's acquittal doesn't necessarily absolve him the way he and his supporters might like, especially at a time when black folks in particular are fighting to draw attention to serious flaws in the criminal justice system. Parker's film also includes a graphic gang rape scene, further complicating age-old questions about the ethics of consuming art when the artist is accused of terrible things.
On this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, Karen Grigsby Bates sits down with Michael Arceneaux of Complex, Goldie Taylor of the Daily Beast, and The Atlantic's Gillian White to dig into some questions that often haunt controversial cultural object.
Is it possible to untether art from the person who created it? What obligations, if any, do filmgoers have to the people who may have been harmed by a filmmaker? And what ramifications might withholding support for Nation have for other black filmmakers struggling to find financing?
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
Can you smell change in the air? Has a surprisingly cool breeze in the morning reminded you that summer is almost over and you're still making it through your summer book list? Well keep reading. Pick your favorite spot, and Pack These Pages.
(SOUNDBITE OF SEAGULLS CAWING, POP TOP POPPING)
SIEGEL: This summer we asked booksellers all over the country what should be on our summer reading lists. Our final stop is Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas.
JULIA GREEN: The owner is Jean Pittman. She purchased the bookstore when it was a tiny, little house on a little side street in our town back in 1996.
SIEGEL: That's the store manager, Julia Green. You'll know you're there when you see a door decorated with an illustration of a man wearing a cowboy hat leaning back in a chair as he reads, his boots resting on a stack of books. Julia Green's first recommendation is a memoir called "Moonlight On Linoleum" by Terry Helwig.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)
GREEN: You know, there are a million memoirs about terrible childhoods, and Terry Helwig does a very good job of capturing that kind of seemingly hopelessness, but it's not hopeless. Throughout the story, listening to this child's life and her voice, you get the sense that even if you didn't know that, OK, she's writing this 40 years later so obviously things turned out OK, you get the sense that she's going to survive this, that this is such a strong child, that she's going to be a strong, amazing woman.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)
GREEN: So the next one's "City Of Women" by David Gillham, which takes place during World War II. It's in Berlin, and all of the age-appropriate men have been shipped off to either the Western front of the Eastern Front. And all that's left basically are the women and the older men and the young boys. And Berlin is now a city of women.
And so these women are struggling. They're trying to feed what's left of their families. They're trying to feed themselves. They're trying to hold onto what few jobs there are. And of course the main character is trying to come to grips with the fact that this man that she loves is in the SS. So that's a fascinating book.
(SOUNDBITE OF GUITAR MUSIC)
GREEN: So I have one left, which is "The Evolution Of Calpurnia Tate" by Jacqueline Kelly. This is a Newbery Honor book, takes place in 1899 in very, very, very hot Texas. (Laughter) And this is about a young girl being exposed to science and natural history for the first time and her growing relationship with her grandfather.
He's been a natural historian for - or interested in natural history for quite a long time since the Civil War, and he hasn't really had anybody to share that with. This is the two of them sharing their knowledge and their interests and love for the natural world.
SIEGEL: Julia Green, the manager of Front Street Books in Alpine, Texas. And as you get ready to switch from ice tea to hot chocolate, go to npr.org for more books from our series Pack These Pages. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.