May the Myth Free the Mythmaker, Jamming, 14/08/2016

I have high expectations for the power and weirdness
of this film.
I’m planning on seeing Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation when it comes to Toronto. The reason is simple – because I think it looks like one of the greatest movies of the 21st century. 

Some preview images alone evoke surrealist masterpieces like El Topo, but with a political consciousness and philosophical knife to fit our current revolutionary era. I also love what a full-bore assault it is on the racist history of Hollywood – down to the title, it overwrites D. W. Griffith’s masterpiece of hate with a genuine story of America’s greatest spirit.

That's the quest for justice for the downtrodden that accompanies every great crime of the country's history. America as a culture knows what freedom is, even if so many of its people fight real freedom to their cores.

Then, weeks before its official release, information about Nate Parker’s rape trial resurfaced. The narrative of events make what really happened pretty clear. It describes exactly the kind of situation that happens all-too-frequently on college campuses today – alcohol, questionable consciousness, and a lack of consent. 

It’s exactly the sort of situation that we know to be rape – but exactly the sort of rape that our criminal justice system is completely incapable of convicting anyone for. We know this is a terrible problem in the legal system today. 

Parker is in many ways a good person, doing wonderful
things like funding a film studies scholarship for
black youth
. Good works don't erase evil acts.
All it took was a years-long social movement of feminist activism by a new generation of young campaigners driven by the immense media equalization of the digital-social era. But in 1999? This would never have gotten on anyone’s radar. 

It makes perfect sense that Parker and his roommate (and eventual Birth of a Nation co-story developer Jean Celestin) did rape a woman. The trial itself exonerated them, but only because our legal system can’t handle most rape trials justly. Parker having to move from prestigious Penn State to Oklahoma shows that everyone accepted the truth of the rape that he couldn’t remain in that community.

Given his youthful crimes, I also find it quite plausible and believable that he believes or has believed many of the homophobic things he’s said. He did once say, and I believe that he believed at the time, that his taking on roles as gay men or less masculine characters did harm to black culture. That it would contribute to black men becoming less manly.

That is a horrible, stupid, disgusting belief. And I think Nate Parker has believed that (at least he did in the past, though he seems to have learned better). Just as I believe that Parker did rape someone.

So why am I still seeing his film? Why would I still endorse the work of someone who I know has committed terrible crimes?

Have you ever seen El Topo? It is some seriously weird
mythical crazy shit.
Because I know that an artistic achievement can transcend the person who made it. The social, symbolic, cinematic, and artistic power of Birth of a Nation, if it achieves everything that those who saw it at Sundance say it does, will be literally mythological. Parker's achievement will have overcome the man who made it.

Perhaps he regrets his violent actions as a youth. Perhaps he no longer holds the homophobic beliefs that he once proudly professed. Maybe he had to learn the hard way, after years of career stagnation typecast in exactly those meatheaded roles he once praised.

In an industry where so many major players have always been gay, publicly expressing those kinds of attitudes would have rightfully earned him some retribution from producers and studios. Nate Parker as a person deserves that and more.

So criticize him for his violent past, keep him on the proper path to eradicate the last of his homophobic feeling. Making Birth of a Nation makes you part of the struggle for freedom, and freedom will never be achieved if a single oppression vector remains. 

That means: Don’t criticize him for being some kind of weird race traitor because of his interracial marriage. Because a community that endorses that kind of ethnic nationalism can never free itself from the ethnic nationalisms that oppress them. All must be free together.

The masterpiece is bigger than Nate Parker, how art becomes our civilization’s living myth. More than what it was as just Parker’s idea. Let it push Nate Parker to become more than the man he was, and is.


  1. This is brazen rape apologist nonsense. Based on your writing, you are clearly an intelligent person, and yet your obvious need to be seen as virtuous and open-minded has caused you to ignore the great contradiction of Nate Parker's movie (which, without seeing, you have more or less dubbed a masterpiece). The contradiction is such: a man who himself is incapable of confront and healing his own past, cannot create a piece of art which aims to do the same. Based on Nate Parker's interviews in Deadline and Variety, he's not looking for redemption, healing and forgiveness...he's looking for an Oscar. A person like that is incapable of true self-reflection, both on the micro scale and the macro scale (race in this country). Mark my words, Parker's phony platitudes in the interviews, are an indication of how phony his movie will be. See it...but actually watch it, don't pre-ordain it.

    1. I did give Parker's Birth of a Nation the credit of ambition, and a whole lot of conditionals (if it's as good as the Sundance critics say it is, if it gets as surreal and cinematically ambitious as some of the trailers and previews suggest), but you're absolutely right.

      Parker seems to have at least learned that you can't expect to build a career in Hollywood (or any arts industry, really) while saying a bunch of homophobic things in public. And some of the online chatter I've seen about his marriage is pretty disgusting. You're absolutely right that it seems he's learned nothing from what he did in 1999, and has spent every public discussion of it sounding like "Nothing to see here!".

      But it's possible for such a morally and ethically compromised person to make art that literally transcends them. I see it, but I'm still trying to understand how it works. Essentially, the artwork oversignifies everything that the artist puts into it, and escapes the wretched ethics of the artist himself. There's Zhang Yimou and Leni Riefenstahl's embrace of authoritarianism, Woody Allen's grotesque pedophilia, Roman Polanski's rape and teenager fetishism, Charles Peirce's spousal abuse and drug addiction, Philip K Dick's homophobia and misogyny – in periods where they've continued to produce masterpieces.

      I didn't want to sound like a rape apologist, saying that it didn't matter. But I suspect Birth of a Nation may turn out to be one of those films that escapes the limitations of its creators. If it does, Nate Parker can still be a horrible person – who should be constantly hounded by the cinematic community about how horrible he is – able to create brilliant films.