From the Editor: Why We Won’t Be Reviewing ‘The Birth Of a Nation’ Upon Its Release

***Trigger Warning For Sexual Assault***

There was a point a few years ago where I wanted to be done with period films and TV shows. Either they had so few Black people in them, it was as if we were to believe they hadn’t been invented until the early 70s. Or, the opposite, the show was about Black people and was supposed to show the unflinching horror and somehow by movie’s end, the triumph of Black people in the face of evil incarnate. I didn’t drift from these movies because of what they showed, but mostly for what I felt the bundle of them implied: here’s some racism from fifty years ago or one hundred and fifty years ago because we don’t dare show you the racism that happened this morning. While not exclusive to slavery movies, slavery movies do indeed make up a large share of those productions. I can understand the person fatigued on that setting. It’s like getting a shot at your doctor appointment. Maybe it wasn’t a big shot that leaves your arm sore for a week, but they still shoved a sharp metal syringe into your shoulder. Likewise, even a really good slavery movie is still, a slavery movie and I can empathize with not wanting to always indulge that.

[quote_left]This was my most anticipated movie release of this year, but probably beyond that as well.[/quote_left]A Birth of a Nation was supposed to be (and ultimately, probably will be) different. This isn’t the story of a slave overcoming horrors and indignities, being separated from their family, educating themselves, then escaping from the plantation with the help of some really nice White dude along the way. A Birth of a Nation is based upon the story of Nat Turner, the man that led the largest slave revolt in North American history. Nat Turner’s story didn’t end with him crawling through swamps to escape the cotton fields and creating his own family in the north, it ended when the cavalry rolled in because Turner led a group of slaves from plantation to plantation, killing slave masters and anyone who looked like them while taking over their property. Nat Turner’s rebellion is almost mythic in the cannon that is Black rebellion in the United States. It is a story so many of us know, but never thought we would see in a major theatrical release, not in a venue that still depends upon White patrons to be financially successful.

To say the least, I was excited for the film when I heard about it breaking records at Sundance for how much it was purchased for and the overwhelming acclaim at its screening. When the first theatrical trailer released, I siphoned away time at my day job to write about it in my rawest, must guttural growl. This was my most anticipated movie release of this year, but probably beyond that as well. I used to question the timing of bad news when delivered at the feet of the newly famous or promoted, especially when it involved Black men. I don’t anymore though because I finally became smart enough to realize that if the news was true, then it didn’t matter [cue the ‘Bill Cosby was about to buy NBC’ folks].

Nate Parker, the director and star of A Birth Of a Nation, was accused of and went to trial for raping an 18 year old student with his then roommate and co-writer of A Birth Of A Nation, while at Penn State University. The details are troubling. No, the details are pretty disgusting. They include an allegation of the two men assaulting the student after a night of drinking where the victim testified that she was unconscious at the time. Parker was acquitted, the transcripts stating that primarily because he had consensual sex with the woman before, while his co-defendant was found guilty and sentenced to six months. The difference being that he didn’t have the same history as Parker did with the victim.

There has always been this perverse dance that we, the general public does, with those that famously entertain us. Sometimes, it’s the expectations we place on our fellow humans who may have an extraordinary talent that brought them into our consciousness. So often, we are at our most righteous when judging celebrity. We like to pretend we know what it’s like to have ten million people interested in our every activity and can’t understand how someone gets caught smoking weed in front of a camera. We cheered and cried for a gymnast and her historic achievement four years ago while criticizing her hair (while she did backflips, folks) but she didn’t put her hand over her heart during the national anthem and suddenly she’s not worth supporting.

But it’s never really about the thing we criticize the celebrity for, at our worst (and normalized) it’s about how much we like the thing that they do to entertain us in the first place. Woody Allen could make a movie tomorrow and he’ll draw an A-List cast from Hollywood. Amy Schumer joked about Latino men being rapists long before Donald Trump launched a campaign off that idea and she’s still the busiest woman comedian in media right now. For me, the Nate Parker issue hits me on a level that both angers me and shames me.

[quote_right]But it’s never really about the thing we criticize the celebrity for, at our worst (and normalized) it’s about how much we like the thing that they do to entertain us in the first place.[/quote_right]I am so proud to be a Black man. No real analogy will capture that. My defense of Black men in the presence of the knives that hunger for us daily is sound and hardened. It is why I can’t support Parker’s ambitious art, even when he needs the voice of people like me the most to support and sustain the intent of it. If you don’t believe in the ways that patriarchy governs the air we breathe, then there is absolutely nothing you’ll agree with in my following words. The violence of men against women and femmes is as pervasive and consistent as the rising sun. Mostly, because we have normalized it, explained it away. Blamed the victim, developed the boys will be boys mantra and installed fellow men as the gatekeepers of any justice that would be served for such violent actions. And while it is a problem of men, it is also a problem of Black men, who sit at the intersection of being a victim of violence in this country and permeating it themselves. Which makes its more frustrating frankly, to see so many take the pain we endure and sharpen it into a weapon against the women that watch over us, comfort us, protect us. At the very least, it is about accountability.

Yes, Parker was acquitted and I don’t believe in infinite punishment, but when he concludes his statements by saying, “I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career,” that simply isn’t good enough. Saying you made some mistakes when you were in college doesn’t exactly sum up sexually assaulting an unconscious woman with a co-conspirator, especially if you’re never really willing to speak specifically to it (“made a lot of mistakes,” “17 years ago,” “grew so much since then,” etc). Realistically, as an editor of a modest website, my not reviewing A Birth of a Nation may not make any impact upon the hype and reception of his film, but it is the only way I know to attempt holding my fellow Black men accountable for the violence we sometimes initiate.

It is not a tool of the righteous that I say this, I don’t judge anyone going to see the movie or reviewing it, these choices are made on a personal level with individual reasoning. I remember when the Mary Sue announced they would stop covering Game of Thrones because of the persistent violence against women that the show seemed to bathe in. I respected the decision, but didn’t make that same decision for the site itself because I felt like the issue being inside of the content gave me an opportunity to still critique and analyze it (even within the humorous tone of the recaps I used). But for me, this is about the face and navigator of the art itself. Not supporting is the best way I know to support those I deeply care about, the women and femmes that carry scars of assault and / or face down a culture of rape and violence every day they wake up. And honestly, if it helps to let Parker know that his actions aren’t tolerated, then it is support for him too.

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  • William is the Editor-In-Chief, leader of the Black Knights and father of the Avatar. With Korra's attitude, not the other one.

  • Show Comments

  • madmonq

    Well considered. Please keep up the good work, everyone.

  • Athena

    As a survivor of sexual violence, I have to applaud this. So many times I’m nauseated at the, well he’s a good man,and the wrong he did to you pales in comparison to the good he does for others speech. Thank you for your support.

  • Milaxx (@MilaXX)

    You just summed up my feelings. Over the past 24 hours since this news hit, I’ve come to decision that I cannot in good conscious go see or support this movie.

  • Lehi Valladares

    Great article. Thanks for writing it.

  • Denise

    I can appreciate your viewpoint and stance on this issue and I support it. And thank you for your support of us, your sisters. That support does more for us than our words can say. The one question I have simply from a place of..curiosity shall we say: will the time ever come for his forgiveness and further support? I apologize to victims of this cruel tragedy but as one who has been forgiven countless times, I often times wonder what is expected for this person to do to “move on” (at the risk of sounding insensitive)?

    • Porscha

      Honestly, a start would be acknowledgement and apology/atonement.

      Parker has yet to do that. He has only acknowledged that “something” or “an unfortunate incident” occurred. He refers to it in the passive voice and minimizes the impact (relatedly: his alleged victim claimed that these two harassed her after she made her allegations, she dropped out of
      college soon after, and she died by suicide in 2012 after two previously unsuccessful attempts).

      He never takes ownership over what his part in it may have been. All we have is that “17 years ago” he “made some mistakes.” That doesn’t engender a sense of comfort in folks, understandably.

      If he acknowledged it and spent time (for example) at a women’s shelter or volunteering at an abuse or sexual assault group, or took up consent as his personal cause, maybe it’d seem like he was being accountable and trying to grow.

      As it stands, he’s being dismissive at best. He cites his current family as if they have anything to do with his conduct 17 years ago. He never once touches on the fact that his roommate at the time, who DID serve time and get convicted for this crime, was his co-writer. That’s a big freaking deal.

      “I’m sorry” campaigns for celebrities tend to be remarkably successful. We (as a society) let them off the hook for a lot when they tap dance for a minute and pretend to mea culpa but that means they have to get in front of it and at least pretend to regret their actions and be remorseful. His publicist, Fox Searchlight’s publicist, whoever is in charge of the bullshit marketing campaign of this movie, should have realized that before now. Their planning on this is scattershot at best; this is basic crisis management in PR.

  • lipsticklacey

    Bless you, and thank you. This is the first I’ve heard of the incident, but after reading your thoughts and sources, I also won’t be supporting the film.

  • Susan

    Thank you. Just, thank you.

  • Amber

    Thank you for using your platform to speak up about this. I also will not be seeing this movie.

  • Grover Conner

    Nat Turner’s rebellion was not the largest in the US. The German Coast rebellion was much larger, as were the rebellions associated with the Seminole Wars.

  • Mwatuangi

    Actually, the Stono Rebellion was the largest slave rebellion in Union history, not Turner’s rebellion. That said, I vibe with this post. A lot of people are willing to support the “art” and thus enable problematic artists. Turner’s someone I wrote a thesis on when I was at my alma mater so I’ve been dying to see his life portrayed in film. It appears I’ll have to wait longer. Parker’s really let a lot of people down.

  • L

    great piece. thank you.
    minor edit: canon – group of exemplary literary works. cannon – large firearm that shoots heavy projectiles.

  • Shania

    I am glad you have removed yourself from the situation of having to write a review for this movie. I have read up on the news but I will still watch and support this movie on social media. This movie is important to Black film.

    • Logical

      I can only imagine that the way this sentence ends got you in that the movie is important to black film and that is more important than sexual violence against women.

  • Vonmiwi Culvera

    It makes me angry to find out the victim’s brother said she killed herself in 2012. I’ve never seen anything Parker has ever been featured in and I wasn’t planning on seeing this either.

  • Dol Bonner

    It’s so easy to divest from things I wouldn’t have spent money on anyway. It’s really difficult to give up things I wanted. This is one of those things. I know this is a difficult and painful decision and I was so grateful when I read this today. Thank you.

  • BlackInformant (@BlackInformant)

    I found this article offensive on several levels.

    You are taking the side of a woman who may have had mental issues (judging by her later suicide) over the courts, who had access to all the evidence and acquitted him.

    I can see MSM doing this to a black hollywood star (#OscarsSoWhite) but I don’t see any anger or even conversation about the producers and directors of other shows you write about every week who have been accused of sexual malfeasance. And where’s the outrage and announcement you won’t be supporting any Johnny Depp projects?

    I don’t watch Woody Allen movies or listen to R. Kelly songs. People should be able to choose the media they consume. But for you to take such a public stance against a black man over something that the courts said didn’t happen 17 years ago comes across to me as some real Uncle Rukus shit.

    • Sivahs

      I’m also offended that after the victim attempted suicide twice, Parker continued to harass her, stalk her, publicly shame her and incite others to do the same. Her home was broken into and she like so many other victims was terrified and traumatized. Why would anyone continue to try and break someone who clearly was fragile? She deserves justice and he is not considered to be one of the black men I treasure for they would not do this to any woman. Even if they were in the right.

    • Jason

      Here mental illness was diagnosed as PTSD brought on by her rape. So your argument is flawed. She was a 4.0 student until this happened to her.

  • KEREEM BERRY

    The ironic thing about this article and the comments is Hollywood, the media, corporate amerikkka and amerikkka as a whole has been raping us both figuratively and literally without a peep to boycott. You ingest the “food” products, wear the clothes and patronize every aspect of business your attacker has to offer, but now that an African is telling an overdue story about revolution you’re up in arms against it? Really? Why hasn’t anyone asked the question why or how this story suddenly surfaced? Now who do you think leaked the story? Okay…now why do you think they leaked it? Stop doing your master’s work slave.

    • TV Juriste

      The story is coming out now because of Parker and Fox Searchlight’s team. It’s always been on his wikipedia page. Parker gave a round of high profile interviews on industry websites in the middle of vacation season/the Olympics in hopes of getting the story out in the public and getting it resolve before they begin a hard core PR push for Oscar nominations. So, if you want to know why the story is all over the news right now — direct your question to Nate Parker.

    • derek880

      I agree completely. This is why I have a problem with the mass Black mob mentality of this all. Black women are raped all the time. When’s the last time we had such a mass exodus of Black anger expressed towards their rapists? Where were all these voices when Daniel Holtzclaw was raping and sodomizing Black women? We talked about it, but did we march or send letters to the Oklahoma City Police Department? Many of us continue to enroll in schools or spend money in businesses that have either been built on rape, or the exploitation of people of color, yet we say or do nothing simply, because. (??). Suddenly, we shouldn’t go see a movie that NEEDED to be made. I respect the editor’s opinion to do what he wants, but I’m looking forward to, and will definitely be seeing the movie. Parker was acquitted. For a Black man to be acquitted of raping a white women, there had to have been some type of evidence in play that was convincing enough to not get a conviction. It’s not like we’re talking about some white privilege thing in play here. This was a Black man that got acquitted.

  • mark r.

    The timing of this is super suspect, but the loss of a life that never got justice is truly heart breaking. With that being said, I still plan on seeing this film and reviewing it as a piece of black cinema that was self-financed and repurposed the title of a movie that was about the birth of the KKK. I won’t ignore Nate’s past, but I can’t not look at the this film.

    • TheDoctor

      Agreed!

  • Tiffany

    He unequivocally denied the allegations. The woman in question was on the record as being black out drunk and she admitted to consensual sex with Parker. There is nuance to this case that you failed to address in your biased article. What we are seeing is indeed a high tech lynching and people like you are tightening the noose. Let me ask you this: does the fact that Parker has gone nearly two decades without any legal issues or accusations matter? Up until a couple of weeks ago he was known as a devoted family man with a good heart and now we are supposed to believe he is Chris Brown, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby, and Jack the Ripper all rolled into one!? C’mon – where are your critical thinking skills? You can support rape victims AND a review a film on its artistic merit. This movie may very well be an overhyped hot mess, but it still deserves to be seen and reviewed. The NYT isn’t making the asinine move of refusing to review Woody Allen movies. Grow up and stop playing into the very narrative that will turn you into a hideous monster next.

    • TV Juriste

      If you agree that the woman was “black out drunk,” then you seem to be admitting that the sex wasn’t likely to be consensual. She was too drunk to consent.

    • derek880

      Thank you Tiffany. I couldn’t have said it better myself. We are getting swept up in this as a people. It reminds me of how many Black people got caught up in the invasion of Iraq all the while knowing that Saddam Hussein couldn’t have had the capability that Bush said he had. They throw pocket-sand in our eyes and suddenly we can no longer see. Now there are demands for apologies from Nate Parker, and people saying that he can “never make it right”. What in the world?? He’s already been marked as one of the worst human beings ever, completely omitting the fact that he was acquitted of rape. Too bad we weren’t able to get this riled up about George Zimmerman.

  • KS

    The problem is where does the boycotting end? Nate Parker isn’t the only one with a questionable past. Former child stars have spoken about rampant molestation in Hollywood. Bryan Singer has been accused of sexual misdeeds and he’s still making huge movies like X-Men. Dr. Dre has been accused of violence against women and yet he’s stil revered. Nate Parker’s past is troubling, and his seeming lack of public atonement for it is also. But he was acquitted and his writing partner served his time. I don’t have an answer to this. I’m torn. I’m still seeing the movie. But there’s definitely a pall over it now. There goes his Oscar.

  • TonyaA6

    Thank you.

  • Blk

    While I get boycotting Nate. And rape. And rapists. There are two Black women in this film who also need our support. Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union are not rapists. Yet their work will go unnoticed, unreviewed, unapplauded because of the actions of the man at the forefront of this project? Seems a but unfair to those women. Especially if this “boycott” is in fact about loving, honoring and protecting women. We are fighting a system that repeatedly fails women by ignoring the contribution of two very talented sistas in the name of Nate bashing? I can’t get with that.

    • streetlevelvideo

      You don’t need to “love, honor and protect” us. We just need you to stop raping us.

  • Jacky paul

    As a sexual assault survivor, I respect this decision, but I do have to say that if you are completely against supporting media/celebrities that in some ways glorify or make sexual assault seem normal, then I believe you have to stop supporting all media/celebrities and not just some. Picking and choosing which show gets reviewed, while both have had some hand in normalizing sexual assault does more harm than good. That being said I believe you should consider not reviewing Game Of Thrones either for the same reasons you aren’t reviewing birth of a nation.

    • Staci Moore

      thank you for your courage to be vulnerable in your response.

  • dcleve

    I have read the phone transcript, and several of the other docs on the case. Nate consistently says she was awake when they had sex. She was also awake the next morning when they had sex again. Some of the testimony supports this — she awoke to find another man having sex with her and was disturbed — ie NATE having sex with her was not disturbing. If I had been on the jury, THESE points, not the oral sex the day before, would have lead me to vote to acquit.

    A drunken stupor is not instantaneous. The woman is reasonably presumed to have been awake and participating when Nate said she was. But neither hers nor Celestine’s testimony supports her consenting to sex with him, and her description of awakening during the process, and later having no idea who Celestine was, supports that she likely did not give consent to sex with Celestine.

    The conviction for Celestine, and acquittal for Nate, appear to be justified based on these points.

    Nate, then, was reasonably guilty of enabling a buddy to have sex with a woman who was unconscious at that point. But did he even know this? He was drunk too, after all, and no longer up close and personal with her.

    It seems a pretty weak reason to boycott a movie over.

  • Bakes

    Im a woman. Does he owe an explanation to us? Is it in his past yes! Is it old news yes! It was only being brought up because of the movie yet it has always been there if you wanted to know I knew. That’s why I’m not shocked of incident. If you only jump on the African band wagon now then Im shocked with you. Do some more reading of more of your African men! His forgiveness comes from God himself and you dont know what happened between him and that lady. Plus if 6mos was given out to blk men that we have so often stated they get more than their counterpart she was believed. So …. you are being judge and jury. Im glad you are god now.

    • Marlon Turner

      Well said…

  • JAM Renaissance

    I support and agree with you. There’s a level of contrition to this kind of thing that is simply not there.

  • Chloe

    Nate Parker had a choice: to protect the girl while she was vulnerable or take advantage. He chose the latter. He then solicited other men to participate in gang-rape. One man had the decency to decline. Nate Parker showed no such decency. He’s scum, and no amount of “spin” is going to change that.

  • Elle

    It saddens me deeply that anyone who chooses to voice an opinion that supports the victim, or wants Parker to be held accountable, is painted either as an Uncle Tom or a part of the white, racist machinery.

    Thank you so much for your article. Please do not be discouraged by the accusatory comments written here. Your words are so, so important.

  • Cembula

    Here we go again. The black community just isn’t savvy enough with the media. White people watch and listen to us pick ourselves and our community apart form within. Judge the damn movie on the merits of the movie itself man not the filmmaker. Take special note about the filmmaker in your review if you have to. This kind of self sabotaging is just unbelievable. Have you watched and reviewed any Mel Gibson movies? The list of movies goes on and on. But you choose this one to have a moral high stand against? White racists who don’t want blacks to succeed just sit back and laugh and help with their own jibes and comments. I never even heard of you as a critic until this movie so this should say something too! Where’s your ire with many of the BET music videos or anything by that dude who directed The Butler? Do you know what is at stake??? We have been fed a false narrative for so long that we don’t even know how serious a movie that a movie which shows empowered historical blacks really is. The narrative must change. Push the damn narrative man, get at the filmmaker separately. Goodness gracious the ignorance.

  • Marlon Turner

    Everyone needs to step back and understand that Parker was found NOT GUILTY because of consensual sex.

    • Marlon Turner

      And I concur with Bakes

  • Eli Shabazz

    Since a person’s personal actions should be viewed over the Merit of their work, this will be the last article I ever read on this site. When we stop doing this to each other? When will we start turning on each other? Bryan Singer’s massive amount of rape accusations against underage boys didn’t stop you from reviewing the latest X-Men movie, did it? He’s used his money, power, and influence to deny these young men their day in court for years. Now, here’s a man who was not able to do any such thing, who faced the accusations in court, and was acquitted of all charges based on the evidence. And yet, when it comes time to pick a side, you choose the white man over the black. I understand your position, I even respect it, but at least be consistent instead of being a glaring hypocrite.

    • Marlon Turner

      Exactly…

    • derek880

      Thank you. You completely nailed it, and herein lies our own little sad, self-hating double-standard. I always found this site interesting to read, but unfortunately I may be moving on as well after reading the editor’s opinion piece.

  • Sally

    Thank you. I support your courage in standing for transformation. Nate Parker has made millions, the story of Nat Turner is available in many books. I will not support this film. I agree, if his contrition included donations to sexual abuse support organizations, and more personal awareness I may have felt differently. For too long women have been expendable and destroyed as collateral damage. We must say enough. We cannot live without our lives, said the poet Audre Lorde.

  • Amanda Donovan

    Thank you thank you for your support and your solidarity. It is deeply appreciated, and reciprocated. Ive always loved your thoughtful writing. Keep up the good work.

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