It’s all about context.
Context is what helped drive The Birth of a Nation, the film directed by Nate Parker chronicling the Nat Turner slave revolt in 1831, to a spot on every pundit’s 2017 best picture prediction list when it debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.
In Hollywood, where black stories and voices are often overlooked and erased, at a time when #OscarsSoWhite was the talk of the town, Birth of a Nation was a welcome addition, one that Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million to distribute in theaters. Its message and connection to the current Black Lives Matter movement also contributed to its early success.
But context is also what has made the release of the film, nine months later, so controversial and fraught.
In August, a 17-year-old rape allegation against Parker resurfaced when a Variety reporter asked the actor/director about it in an interview. Parker and his friend and Nation co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of rape in 1999 while students at Penn State. Parker was acquitted at trial, while Celestin was convicted, and his conviction was later overturned and he was not retried. The accuser committed suicide in 2012.
Parker has since addressed the allegations multiple times, but has remained firm on his innocence. In a recent 60 Minutes interview Parker said he would not apologize and that he was “falsely accused” and later “vindicated.”
Separating the art from the artist, in this case, would be easier if rape wasn’t so central to Parker’s film.
The question is less about whether Nation is good or powerful or important, and more about whether rape is depicted responsibly in the film. Because regardless of what you know about Parker, the way the film portrays rape is troubling.
The Birth of a Nation depicts two rapes. In the first, Nat’s wife Cherry Ann (Aja Naomi King) is cornered by a group of slave catchers. Just a few scenes later, a white guest of Nat’s master Samuel (Armie Hammer) “requests” Esther, a slave played by Gabrielle Union.
Neither of these rapes is shown onscreen. Cherry is cornered by her attackers, but the scene cuts away before they touch her. We see her bruised and swollen face later, when Nat goes to visit her sickbed. In the case of Esther, the attack takes place inside a house while the camera stays outside it. The shot lingers on the face of Esther’s husband Hark (Colman Domingo) during her assault. His pain and trauma are the focal point of the scene — Esther is merely a set piece. When she emerges, hurt and crying, she does not speak. He speaks. He speaks in that scene and much more later, when, as a result of what happened to Esther, he joins Nat’s rebellion.
At Nation’s bombastic Sundance premiere, Parker described most films dealing with American slaveryas "desperately sanitized." He said there was an ongoing "resistance to dealing with this material."
That material is presented with almost brutal prominence in Nation. There are multiple graphically violent scenes, from the abuse suffered by the slaves to the violence of the rebellion itself. Yet rape is sanitized. As much as Parker wishes viewers of the film will confront the country’s brutal past violence, he removes violence against women from that narrative.
We don’t know why Parker glossed over these scenes. It could have been in an attempt to keep the movie from getting an NC-17 rating or because he was actively trying to avoid his personal past. But viewers don't have an insight into his mind, and are left with only what he decided to put onscreen. The implication that women's agency, pain and lives aren't as important as those of the men is the same, regardless.
Esther’s rape is reminiscent of another recent and divisive portrayal of sexual assault in popular culture. In the fifth season of Game of Thrones, the show includes the violent rape of Sansa Stark (Sophie Turner) by Ramsay Bolton (Iwan Rheon), while her friend Theon Greyjoy (Alfie Allen) is forced to watch. After a moment in which it becomes clear what Ramsay intends to do, the camera shifts focus to Theon’s shocked and horrified face as he watches, Sansa’s screams of pain and terror relegated to background noise.
The scene caused an immediate and incisive uproar, and chief among the criticisms was the fact that the scene was told from the perspective of a man. As Salon put it, “Her sobs become the score for someone else’s story.”
Esther never returns to the screen in Birth of a Nation. Her rape is a catalyst for a male character to make a choice. Her tear-stained face the scenery of someone else’s story. Likewise most of the women in the film -- from Cherry to his mother to his grandmother -- merely exist to set Nat on his path. Even the first moments between Nat and Cherry are troubling, in a scene where Nat manipulates his master into buying her, seemingly because he is attracted to her. The problematic treatment of women cannot be reduced to an argument of historical accuracy. If the film were to truly emphasize who was valued in 1831 by society, the story would be told from a white perspective. But just as Parker tries to give voice to the black male slaves history has forgotten, he helps history forget black female slaves yet again.
There are dangers to reducing women to plot devices and telling stories of rape that gloss over the woman. Films can shape conversations around masculinity and consent. Union herself, in an op-ed in which she revealed she is a sexual assault survivor, said she participated in the film to “talk about sexual violence. To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches.” But the film leaves Cherry and Esther out of that conversation. The stain that matters is on their husbands.
When we question whether or not we can separate art from an artist, we must also question what that art depicts. Sexual violence in art is fraught, no matter who created it. It’s why we interrogate those scenes in Game of Thrones. In The Birth of a Nation we have two men accused of rape depicting it clumsily and irresponsibly onscreen.
Context is important. But the stories of Cherry and Esther are only told in the context of Nat Turner’s. And that is a disservice.