A Tale of Two Movies
One night last year after work I caught The Hunting Ground at the E Street Theater. A few days earlier I saw The Invisible War on Netflix. The latter film strikingly illustrated how the military often ignored sexual assault in its ranks or swept it under the rug. Kirby Dick directed both films, so I expected that he would do the same for sexual assault on college campuses as he did with the military. Still nothing could have prepared me for how The Hunting Ground exposed not just the prevalence of campus sexual assault, but the callous and cruel way it was treated by universities. Listening to women describe their assault, and then describe how their colleges would blame them, launch a cursory investigation if any, and then give slap-on-the wrist punishment to the offenders made me both ashamed and angry.
I did not think about The Hunting Ground earlier this year, when I first heard of Nate Parker’s upcoming film, The Birth of a Nation. While it shares the name of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist epic, the new film is the story of Nat Turner leading a slave rebellion in the 1830s. Parker had struggled for years to get the financing for his film, and then to make it as a first-time director. Turner’s rebellion had never been depicted on film before, at least to my knowledge. Coming off the #OscarsSoWhite controversy, and in the wake of Black Lives Matter, The Birth of a Nation certainly seemed to have timing at its side. When it earned rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, and was acquired by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the film also seemed to have the momentum it would need for a successful fall release and a strong Oscar campaign.
All of that momentum appeared to evaporate in August when media outlets began reporting on Parker’s arrest and trial for rape back when he was a student at Penn State. In 1999, Parker and his friend Jean Celestin had sex with another Penn State student. They claimed it was consensual; she claimed it was not. She maintained that she was intoxicated and unconscious and was in no position to give consent. She and Parker had consensual sex before but not her and Celestin. The jury acquitted Parker and convicted Celestin, who appealed the verdict. Celestin’s conviction was overturned and prosecutors elected not to retry the case. Parker and Celestin remained friends and Celestin is listed as a co-writer of The Birth of a Nation.
The story grows worse. Parker, Celestin and their supporters contended that the police investigators had a racial bias. The Women’s Law Project filed a civil suit on behalf of the accuser against Penn State, claiming that Parker and Celestin “organized [a] campaign to harass [the accuser] and make her fear for her safety.” The University settled for $17,500. News reports conveyed a climate pitting African-American advocates against women’s advocates. The accuser, who had been a strong student, dropped out of school and developed substance and mental health problems. She committed suicide in 2012. (The Daily Beast conducted a thorough review of the case).
The case was never hidden from the public and had been on Parker’s Wikipedia page. Still, many in the media and the public learned of it for the first time in August, and reaction was swift. The American Film Institute cancelled a high-profile screening. Writer Roxane Gay wrote in an op-ed for the New York Times that she would not see the film because of what happened. A black popular culture website, BlackNerdProblems, refused to review the movie. Some even called for Fox Searchlight to drop the film. The Hollywood Reporter claimed that The Birth of a Nation “is seen as tainted.” In the same article Marcia Nasatir, an Academy member in the executives branch said “Personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in it. Do I want to see a movie from someone who has committed an assault against a woman and who I do not think recognizes his guilt? Right now, based on what I've read, I would not go to the movie.” Rutanya Alda, another Academy member, weighed in that “I will probably see it because I try to see everything. But I have to admit, I'm going to go in with a very biased attitude toward this guy because I think what he and the co-writer did to this girl was terrible.”
Nasatir, Alda, and others like them assume that Parker committed rape. Remember, he was acquitted. No, that doesn’t mean he is innocent. I’ve read the cases’ media coverage and some of the transcripts, and I don’t know if Parker committed rape. Neither do you, Nasatir, Alda, or any of the others rushing to judgement. Only three people know for sure. Two of them were tried and one of them is dead.
Let’s go back to The Hunting Ground for a moment. The film shows that many universities would not take the sexual assault or rape allegations seriously and often there would be little in the way of an investigation. Colleges often do not create a climate where victims can come forward, which means perpetrators can act with little fear of being held accountable. Some media outlets questioned some of the data in The Hunting Ground, so I went to another source – The U.S. Department of Justice. The Department’s Bureau of Justice Statistics conducted a study of nine randomly selected universities. The study found that “Over the course of their time in college, 13 percent to 51 percent of females in their fourth year had been a victim of sexual battery or rape.” So, in one school more than half of the female students were victimized during their time there. The study also indicated that “just 4 percent of rapes were reported to law enforcement and a mere 7 percent were reported to any school official.”
Parker’s case was different than the ones shown in The Hunting Ground. When the student made her allegation against Parker, there was a full investigation. After this investigation and all of the evidence presented by the prosecution a jury was not convinced beyond a reasonable doubt that Parker committed rape. That criminal justice system may be far from perfect, but for this case it’s what we got.
Granted, the court of public opinion has different standards than the criminal courts. Parker did not help himself in interviews when he appeared not to take seriously what happened 17 years ago. In later interviews, including an upcoming one on “60 Minutes,” Parker expressed sorrow at his accuser’s fate, but still denied any responsibility. His continued work with Celestin, who was initially convicted, is troubling. But even so the ferocity of the backlash against Parker strikes of hypocrisy and double standards.
Woody Allen has been accused by both his ex-wife Mia Farrow and his daughter Dylan of child sexual abuse, as I wrote about two years ago. The Connecticut state prosecutor assigned to the case claimed that there was probable cause to bring a case against Allen, but did not do so. The presiding judge in the custody battle between Allen and Mia Farrow found that “Mr. Allen’s relationship with Dylan remains unresolved. The evidence suggests that it is unlikely that Mr. Allen could be successfully prosecuted for sexual abuse.” But he disagreed with the conclusion that there was no sexual abuse. The judge added that “Mr. Allen’s behavior toward Dylan was grossly inappropriate” and “that actions must be taken to protect her.” Yet Allen has received movie deals and Oscar nominations well after these allegations came to light. Roman Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 1978, then fled the country after a judge was going to void his plea deal. Even though he cannot return to America without facing jail time, Polanski won a Best Director Oscar in 2002.
Writer Christian Toto explained in a Washington Times article that “Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have track records of excellence, in addition to being somewhat beloved Hollywood personalities. Nate Parker is the new kid on the block, a guy with a potentially great new movie, [and] rape culture is a significant topic now, even more so than it used to be.” Rape culture certainly deserves to be a significant topic, but the rest of what Toto said is simply appalling. Since Allen and Polanski have had long, acclaimed careers, they get a pass while we bring the hammer down on Parker because he’s new. We can debate about judging filmmakers by a moral compass, but if we are than it should at least be the same compass for young and old, for white and black.
We also see different rules for sports stars. Both Ben Roethlisberger and Jameis Winston faced serious accusations of sexual assault and rape. The New York Times ran a chilling expose of how police botched the investigation into Winston, damaging any chance for a successful prosecution. Yet both Roethlisberger and Winston are starting for quarterbacks for NFL teams, playing for millions of dollars in front of adoring fans.
People have every right to be upset about how colleges handle rape and sexual assault. Everyone should be concerned when, as The Hunting Ground showed so clearly, victims are punished instead of the perpetrators. But Parker had his day in court. Directing the anger at him will not help anyone. I have no idea whether Parker is a good person, but I will watch The Birth of a Nation and decide for myself if he is a talented artist with something to say. The film earned a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival. Fox Searchlight claims it’s sticking with its release and publicity plans, offering some hope that the film will be judged on its own merits.
In the end, the real story is less about Parker or The Birth of a Nation than about a promising young woman who suffered that night in 1999 and every day since. We do not know if she was raped, but the changes in her behavior, and her descent into substance abuse are consistent with someone who endured a substantial trauma. Clearly she could not get the help she needed. If we as a society want to honor her and others like her, the best way is by working to make sure that all alleged rape victims can be in an environment where they feel safe to come forward. It’s by restoring faith that rapists will be brought to justice so they can’t hurt anyone else. Most importantly, it’s by providing victims with support, be it counseling, drug treatment or legal advice. And none of that will be accomplished by skipping a movie.
October 1, 2016
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