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The Faustian bargain of Birth of a Nation



Last spring, it was announced that Fox Searchlight spent $17.5 million dollars acquiring the rights to Birth of a Nation, the gritty new movie about a bloody slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.  There was even Oscar talk, but then something terrible happened. It was revealed that in 1999 the film's creator Nate Parker and his co-writer had been accused of sexual assault. What began as a drunken three-way became a court case that (despite a lack of convictions) ruined both men's reputations. It didn't help that the victim, a white woman, committed suicide in 2012. It didn't matter that her suicide may not have been related. It also didn't help that Parker seemed unrepentant and unlikeable. (He said a lot of homophobic stuff, too.) Suddenly, Fox Searchlight was carrying a big fat turkey. It was released in October and audiences shunned it, and come award season, the film is not likely to make a dent. It should be retitled Stillbirth of a Nation.

It's a pity, really, because Birth of a Nation was designed for impact, beginning with the title, the same name as D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic which is also about slavery. Griffith, born and raised in the Old South just after the Civil War, adapted a popular play at the time depicting the Ku Klux Klan as heroes. Griffith's film is probably the world's first great motion picture classic. Watching it a few years ago, I was enthralled by how damn good it is. Yet it is also totally racist. It needed to be addressed. Nate Parker's new film aimed to do just that. This time around, the nation being born would be one of proud black Americans. But sadly, it will now forever be known as a movie directed by,co-written by,produced by and starring a rapist. 

How would you feel if it was discovered that Beethoven had been a rapist? Would you stop listening to his music? I recall a woman who would not read Lawrence Durrell's The Alexandria Quartet because his daughter had published an incoherent journal suggesting that they had engaged in an incestuous relationship. Needless to say, that woman got an F for English Lit, but she gave herself an A+ in Moral Superiority, for what it's worth.
Some people will boycott the films of Roman Polanski (convicted of rape) or Woody Allen (accused but not convicted of anything) as a matter of principle, if you could call it that. All it takes is an accusation. Even Last Tango In Paris, the 1972 masterwork by Bernardo Bertolucci, was dragged over the coals because he admitted, years ago, that he did not tell actress Maria Schneider that Marlon Brando was going to put butter up her cunt, which is no different than director Norman Taurog telling a 9-year-old Jackie Cooper that they were going to shoot his dog. Cooper cried, cameras rolled, and he became the youngest Oscar nominee ever, for the 1931 movie Skippy. Making movies can sometimes be a Faustian bargain. 

But the bottom line is, judging the artist rather than judging the art is disingenuous. It creates a situation where nobody wins, and it's a pity, really, because Birth of a Nation has the potential to make audiences understand black pain more than any Black Lives Matter protest ever could.

 


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