What is more important: The artist or the art? – Nate Parker vs. Birth of a Nation

I have been observing the discourse regarding the new film Birth of a Nation for quite some time now. At first I was apprehensive (not another slave movie!), however, I do think it is important to share stories of empowerment, self belief and determination, as well as overcoming racism and prejudice, because it is evidently needed in today’s society. So, in that sense the film is necessary, although it is still perpetuating imagery of ‘black’ films only being mainstream if black people are portrayed as slaves/oppressed; see Django Unchained, The Help, The Butler and 12 Years a Slave.

The bigger issue at hand with this film is the fact that it is being overshadowed by the past actions of its director and writer, Nate Parker. As reported in this Variety article , Parker, and his friend, Jean Celestin (who is also a co-writer on the film), were accused of raping an 18 year old female student back in 1999, while students at Penn State University. Parker was found not guilty, while Celestin appealed his conviction, with his case eventually being thrown out on account of the victim not wanting to testify again, however, the victim claimed that their acts were non-consensual.

Fast-forward seventeen years later, Parker, now a father of five daughters, is having to defend himself and reassert the fact that he was found not guilty of his actions. This story is picking up traction so quickly that in every press conference about the film, Parker is being questioned about his past actions. In his Variety interview, Parker states; “It was very painful for everyone who went through it. What I learned through 17 years of growth and having children and having a wife and building a family is that we have to fight for what’s right. We have to lead in love.”

So after all of this, my question to you is; Does the past actions of an artist invalidate his art today? It is a very tricky question. There have been many controversial and problematic artists that have gone through similar ordeals. The most recent being Bill Cosby. I don’t think it is right to compare the alleged crimes of any two people, however, it is fair to say that Cosby is being accused of much larger offences. As well as the fact that if has an effect on more people considering Cosby has been in the entertainment industry for over fifty years.

I grew up watching The Cosby Show, and recently completed A Different World. Personally, although I do condemn the offences that Cosby has been accused of, I can’t deny the entertainment value and high quality that these two shows displayed. They covered many boundary-pushing issues that were unheard of for their times; including the HIV epidemic, racism, learning disabilities and the struggles of being adopted once you get older. I have tried not to let whatever opinions of Bill Cosby I hold, taint my enjoyment of his shows, not only because they were entertaining and groundbreaking, but because it isn’t fair to everyone else involved. The writers, producers, actors and other crew members dedicated many years of their lives to creating these shows, and to negate them based on the actions of one man, to me, is unfair.

Evidently, the other actors involved in this film are still passionate about the project, despite clearly being shaken and disturbed by the allegations.

Therefore, I apply the same logic to this current Nate Parker situation. The moral and narrative of the story is larger than Nate Parker and the other actors. The film should not be subjected to boycotts or blackballing because of the actions of one man. Yes, he is the director, writer and star of the film, but he is not the first person to have a past. Once again, I am not justifying his actions, but it is important to point out that he was acquitted of his alleged crime and it was seventeen years ago. So, while the conversation is important and valid, I don’t believe it should affect your opinion on the film. There have been countless other celebrities that have been accused of crimes who have gone on to have flourished careers including Woody Allen, Sean Penn, Nicolas Cage, Alec Baldwin and Mel Gibson, all who happen to be white, but we won’t get into that.

All I’m saying is that we should give the film a chance, as the art is bigger than the artist.

What do you think about this whole situation? Leave a comment below and let me know!

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