Separating Art From Artist: The ‘Birth of A Nation’ Dilemma

We are just over a week away from Nate Parker’s passion project – the slavery-revolt drama The Birth of A Nation, the film that overwhelmed Sundance this last winter and sold for the biggest price tag in the festival’s history – opening nationwide to audiences.

And we’re also a few weeks removed from the news that Parker and his old roommate were not only accused, but arrested on allegations of sexual assault back in 1999.

If you want the whole story again, you can find it, but there’s no need to get into the dirty details here. It was an awful, seedy, disgusting night from what the reports suggest. The issue in front of us now involves a few things. First off, how will this film be received by the masses who know about Parker’s horrible history in that Penn State dorm? And what does this do for Oscar chances for the film?

Now, I don’t want to just sit here and say “oh no, it won’t win any Oscars!” That’s ridiculous. It’s as pointless on some level as the awards themselves. But the Oscars are still a cultural event, and think about it… here was this film, a passion project from an African-American filmmaker, lauded as an instant classic the moment it premiered at Sundance, seemingly ushered to the front of the Best Picture/Director/Actor lines, in a very poignant and crucial year for the Academy. Last year’s #OscarsSoWhite needed a counterpunch from an African-American prestige picture. The Academy needed a strong response this year, no matter what the case, and here was a miracle to make those stodgy old white males feel better about themselves, and they had it gift wrapped.

Until August.

I don’t know if The Birth of A Nation will win any Oscars and, frankly, it doesn’t matter at least a little but outside of social media controversy. Shutting the film out of the Oscars won’t bring back the victim of Parker’s crimes, who killed herself in 2012. It won’t do a damned thing. The Academy members will just have to work harder to be a little less shitty and racist when nomination time rolls around. There’s plenty of great work from minority artists out there, but this one was their Golden Goose and now they don’t know what to do. (Psst… see more movies!)

Back to that wide release… What about the masses watching this movie at all? Should there be some sort of widespread boycott for The Birth of A Nation, given its creator’s horrible transgressions? That is a tricky issue. My personal approach is to separate the art from the artist. Taking a stand on Parker’s film then means you must never watch a Woody Allen movie or a Roman Polanski movie ever again. If you say, “who cares? Those guys suck and I don’t watch them anyway,” well, you probably aren’t interested in this film  and you have missed a ton of great cinema over the years.

I understand Woody Allen has done very creepy and deviant things in his past, and is probably a pederast to some degree. But I absolutely adore Annie Hall. Match Point is a brilliant thriller, Hannah and Her Sisters is terrific, and so on and so forth. Roman Polanski did some terrible things to an impressionable young girl, but Chinatown and Rosemary’s Baby are undeniable masterpieces of the highest order (not to mention the brilliance of his smaller films). I can watch these films and divorce myself from the flaws and horrible acts of their creators. It may not be the right thing to do, but it’s a compartmentalization that works for me to appreciate artistry for the sake of art.

And what about the other actors, and the hundreds of workers attached to The Birth of A Nation beyond Parker and his collaborator and fellow rapist (oof), Jean McGianni Celestin? Should Armie Hammer suffer yet another failure because of Parker’s horrific acts? What about the rest of the cast and crew who spent a great deal of time and effort on this picture? There’s more at play here than Nate Parker and his unforgivable sexual assault.

This isn’t meant to sway your position. Perhaps you’re dug in on this issue and you won’t see it on principle. To that I say, congratulations. But if we are denying this film based on Parker, then read up on the dozens and dozens of scandals and terrible actions of filmmakers and actors and weed those films out of your life as well. And while you’re at it, you might wanna check in on your favorite musicians and musical artists and take a look at their biographies. Ignoring art because you don’t like the artist, or the artist has done unforgivable things in their past, is a tough thing to manage, and that hill you’re set to die on will definitely change too often to remain consistent.

Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry Taylor - Managing Editor
Larry is the managing editor for Monkeys Fighting Robots. The Dalai Lama once told him when he dies he will receive total consciousness. So he's got that going for him... Which is nice.