Recently, I have been filled with anticipation over seeing the new movie BIRTH OF A NATION; the historical film took both the audience award and the Grand Jury Prize at this year's Sundance Film Festival, a triumph for first time director, screenwriter and star Nate Parker. The film just opened to a wide release yesterday.
But before it was released, a skeleton fell out of Parker's closet: in 1999, while a student at Penn State University, Parker and his friend Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a drunken female student. The two men claimed that the sex had been consensual, but charges were filed. Although they were found not guilty, the charge still hangs over the heads of both men (Celestin co wrote the film with Parker). Even more disturbing, the accuser committed suicide in 2012. Gabrielle Union, a star of the film and herself a rape survivor, admits that she cannot take these allegations lightly.
So, should the film be boycotted? Personally, I still plan to see it, but I can understand other people having that reaction. I have always felt that art and the artist who created it are two separate things, and that terrible behavior by an artist outside of their works of art does not make their artwork worthless. People who have read my blog may have noticed that when I wrote about Best Picture winner ANNIE HALL(1977), I decided not to mention director Woody Allen's controversial marriage to his ex-girlfriend's much younger adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn. Partly, I did this because that relationship happened years after ANNIE HALL was released, but also because I felt that it had nothing to do with the film itself. To me, it is possible to both condemn Allen's personal life and still enjoy his films as something separate from that life.
And hey, why pick on Allen? Director Roman Polanski can't enter the US without being arrested for the rape of a 13 year old girl he committed back in the 70's. Does that make all the films he's made since then unwatchable? Obviously the Academy doesn't think so, since they awarded him a Best Director Oscar for the film THE PIANIST in 2002, even while he was in exile. And then there's Charlie Chaplin, hailed as one of the greatest movie stars ever, who while making the film THE GOLD RUSH in 1925, had to find a new leading lady because he impregnated original star Lita Grey; she was 16, he was 32.
Finally, there's the story of director Micheal Curtiz; while making the film NOAH'S ARK in 1928, he demanded that the film's inevitable flood scene dump hundreds of thousands of water on the people playing extras. (Initial camera man Hal Mohr quit the film rather than shoot it). When the resulting chaos wound up drowning three people and seriously injuring others, the studio was able to bury the story and Curiz, who at the very least should have been brought up on some kind of man slaughter charge, was able to continue his career like nothing had happened. He eventually went on to direct CASABLANCA in 1942, which happens to be one of my favorite movies. Is it wrong for me to love that movie, given that it's director was responsible for the drowning of three innocent people? I don't think so. Again, art and artist are two different things that can be held and judged separately. Which is why I'll still see BIRTH OF A NATION.