To Support Women, I’m Boycotting “Birth Of A Nation”

The rush to protect beleaguered Nate Parker is appalling

Image courtesy of Getty Images.

Not that long ago, I was extraordinarily pumped about Birth Of A Nation.

As a black fan of film—and after a draining awards season in which the unbearable whiteness of Hollywood was on full display—news of actor and director Nate Parker’s project was like a come-up by proxy. Nat Turner’s rebellion has always fascinated me. Parker’s film, about Turner’s 1831 Virginia slave rebellion, had received unequivocal praise following its Sundance Film Festival debut. I was hyped when I saw that this decidedly black movie had commanded the attention and accolades of even a very white Sundance crowd.

The studio bidding war that ensued was even more encouraging, as it sold in a record deal to Fox Searchlight to the tune of $17.5 million. To see the story told on the big screen was an exciting prospect. Hollywood, being as white as it is, in front of and behind the cameras, has not been fond of narratives such as this one, and studios are still trying to claim that they can’t bank multi-million dollar-budgeted movies on black actors, filmmakers and stories despite plenty of evidence to the contrary.

Yet, Parker’s reticence to own his past deeds in the wake of the news about his 2001 rape trial (and the alleged victim’s 2012 suicide) has been hard to ignore.

I have no desire to see Parker’s “Birth Of A Nation” at this point, and I’ve already had a handful of debates with men claiming that we should separate the artist from the deed, as we’ve done with Polanski and Woody before. Separating the artist from the deed may as well mean castration, because we’re not really serious when we say this. Rather, we—and when I say “we,” I mean men—want to compartmentalize the trauma of millions in service of our own convenience. And in some cases, our own consumption.

By way of a Facebook post, Parker invoked both his faith and his family. He told Variety, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life.” Following a wave of negative reactions to the news that have overshadowed what is apparently a brilliantly made film, the director has slowly pivoted towards a point of humility, and perhaps something like culpability. In a Q&A at a screening of the film at the Merge Summit in Los Angeles, Parker conceded that "The way I treated women, objectified women — my manhood was defined by how many women I could be with. I was a dog. I was wrong."

AFI has cancelled their screening of the film, and there is speculation about what this means for the film’s Oscar chances. Studios may now consider stronger vetting processes for projects and filmmakers before gambling on independent films that are already difficult for black artists and others to get made. There’s a corner of the Internet invested in the conspiracy that Parker is being punished by a cabal of unseen white arbiters who only several months ago were fighting over who got to drop millions to distribute his project. That is what it is. But what does it say when men are more eager to protect Nate Parker than the repeatedly doxxed Leslie Jones, or any one of the Cosby survivors?

When so-called alt-right assholes launched an intensive troll campaign against the comedian and Ghostbusters star, it was bad enough that Jones’ co-stars (all white) didn’t pipe up in support, even after she took a break from Twitter to escape the online assault. To see Black men fight against colorism and misogynoir weeks later—using the #BlackMenSupportLeslie created by @BlakeDontCrack on Twitter in support of Jones—when private photos and information of hers were leaked in a second attack has been encouraging. Yet, the endless spectacle of terrible takes, memes and “jokes” online and off about the harassment and assault of girls and women continues elsewhere, and it is as disgusting as it is unsurprising.

There is of course a cruel and deadly legacy of Black men being marked as rapists and sexual predators, particularly when the focus of their alleged violence is a white woman. But there is also a legacy of girls and women being assaulted and consequently vilified, shamed and disbelieved. This, unfortunately, isn’t the first time I’ve experienced a man, be it a friend or some public figure, face accusations of the heinous act of rape. I’d heard the rumors of what they’d done, but I wasn’t there. Everything in me wanted to believe “my boy,” but you never truly know someone, no matter how long you’ve known them or what you’ve been through together. There was every chance in the world that he’d raped her. That he had taken her home when she was clearly drunk and couldn’t possibly consent. That he’d pressured with words or worse until he got what he wanted. On and on.

I was fortunate enough to go to a school where sex ed was taught in the elementary years, but I don’t remember Ms. Rothmann ever explaining the complexities of consent the way she did anatomy or other topics. I remember her hairstyle and the peacock pendant she’d wear, but not her telling us boys that there is no gray area of consent. Was it something we were supposed to just figure out, and if so, how does that not prescribe disaster when applied to an entire culture of boys?

[quote position="right" is_quote="true"]To the men sticking up for Nate Parker and all the others like him: This is bigger than you. [/quote]

It only recently occurred to me in the last several years how unsafe even a walk in broad daylight can be for girls and women. And I am still learning how far many of us men will go to protect the rapists among us. For every Brock Turner or Vineyard Vines-tragedy frat dawg who “fits the type,” there is a sensitive boy in a man’s body who plays in a band or books shows or does stand up or poetry who is just as complicit. Nice Guys, you are part of the problem. Chivalry isn’t chivalry if it’s creepy, predatory and quid pro quo.

To the men sticking up for Nate Parker and all the others like him: This is bigger than you. You may argue that he has had his day in court, but there is ample proof that a court of law is one of the last places a survivor can expect to find justice, if they even make it there. And do not break your arm patting yourself on the back while you feign concern and mumble that “it could’ve been your daughter, your sister, your wife.” Most women are not related or known to you, believe it or not, and to turn our backs on all the survivors who don’t share blood or a bed with us is insult to the worst kind of injury.

There is an imperative at hand: Believe survivors, especially when it’s inconvenient to do so, because it was your friend, or your brother, or your “hero,” or because the survivor is male, or you “know he wouldn’t do that, he’s a good dude.” There are millions of stories, millions of lives (an estimated 17.7 million women/2.78 million men since 1998 according to RAINN) damaged by our inaction and our inability to accept that this type of violence reaches every corner of our society. There can of course be healing, but the burden is on us dudes to not cause the harm to begin with and to do the next right thing, be it in the bedroom or the courtroom.

AFP News Agency / Twitter

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