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'The Birth of a Nation': To see or not to see?

A scene from the film,
A scene from the film, "The Birth of a Nation."
Jahi Chikwendiu

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"The Birth of a Nation" opens Oct. 7 after months of countless essays, tweets and discussions about whether or not to see the film. The debate has been about reconciling the importance of a movie about the little-known Nat Turner slave rebellion with a troubling episode from filmmaker Nate Parker's past.

In recent weeks both Parker and Fox Searchlight have been trying to shift the public conversation from Parker to his film. The message was even taken to the sky over Los Angeles this week.

The issue in a nutshell:

When "The Birth of a Nation" premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, #OscarsSoWhite was trending because of a second consecutive year of all the Academy Award actor and actress nominees being white. In that context, Parker's film was seen as a sort of savior as Oscar buzz quickly began to swirl around "Birth." There was a bidding war, ending when Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for the rights to distribute the movie. At the time, Parker — who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film — told The Frame that his ambitions went beyond any award accolades.

The most important thing for me is healing. I think this film can promote and facilitate healing in a country that has wounds that were afflicted during the legacy of slavery and that still affect us today. 

But in August, an old legal issue surfaced. While a student at Penn State in 1999, Parker and his roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin (who has a writing credit on "The Birth of a Nation"), were accused of raping a fellow student. Celestin was found guilty, but the conviction was later overturned on appeal. Parker, who was acquitted, recently told "60 Minutes" that he was "falsely accused."

But news of the case completely shifted the conversation around the movie – especially when it was reported that the woman who claimed to have been raped by Parker and Celestin had committed suicide years later.

Now, with the movie headed for theaters, the debates continue over whether to see the film. Variety reports that a group of rape activists have planned a vigil at Arclight in Hollywood when the movie opens.

To discuss the essential questions at hand, we turned to two people who've been doing a lot of thinking about "The Birth of a Nation": Vinson Cunningham is a staff writer for The New Yorker who wrote a piece entitled: “The Birth of a Nation isn’t worth defending"; and Goldie Taylor, editor-at-large at the Daily Beast. They spoke with KPCC reporter and The Frame guest host, Priska Neely.

To hear the full conversation click the play button at the top of the page. 

Interview highlights

Why Nat Turner's story is important to tell:

TAYLOR: My initial response was just excitement, really. That a story like Nat Turner's was going to finally come to the silver screen was something I thought was important. I still believe that. And for me, the story of Nat Turner had been all but buried. The peace-loving person of color, the Dr. King story, the story of other people who did not fight, but fought in different ways — those stories were in the forefront. But people who actually took up arms, those stories were pressed down. And I was excited to see that a more complicated picture of us was going to come to the silver screen.

Balancing what's "good" with what's "important":

CUNNINGHAM: I didn't think it was a good film. I think that a lot of the defense of the film in light of Mr. Parker's troubles ... has come on the grounds of the importance of the story. I totally [get] that point. I think it is an important story for Americans to know as well. But I think that sometimes when we think of things as so important as to be indispensable, we in some ways lower our standards artistically. I think that it is important for these stories to be told, but not at the expense of the mode and the quality of the telling.

We live in a time when there are so many wonderful filmmakers, especially black filmmakers. I believe that we're in the middle of, if not a renaissance, [then] certainly a wonderful amount of talent. So I think that we can afford to be pickier about the stories and the artworks that we choose to champion. I just think that we might think a little about [promoting] things that aren't worth our efforts and our defense.

Resolving the dilemma of whether to see the movie:

TAYLOR: The dilemma for me really is a personal one in that I'm a rape survivor. Those incidences over time — whether I like it or not — shape, define, contort how I saw myself in the world and how I allowed myself to engage this world of mine. Today, nearly two decades later, I still see vestiges of it, its fingerprints on my life — which media I consume, what scenes are just too tough for me to watch. I was concerned that because of that cultural lens ... the movie would just simply be unbearable for me. One, that Nate Parker was its producer; and two, that there were vicious rape scenes, as I've heard them described, in the film. So I was leaning against seeing it. I think what really prompted me to want to see it was to take a look back on my own education and the schools that I went to, black and white, [that] had suppressed stories just like [Nat Turner's]...And I just simply did not want to miss this.

Do you separate the art from the Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, Bill Cosby:

CUNNINGHAM: There's no way to hide the good, bad and ugly about the people who make our art. It strikes me, listening to Goldie's story, [that] I don't think we're going to arrive at a perfect calculus for when the sins of the artist should disqualify a piece of art. But in this case, I do think there are some instances where, once you know a thing about a person, it's hard to [distinguish from] their output. Whatever did or didn't happen with Nate Parker, it is interesting to see these issues with women in the film. Sometimes that stuff gets uncomfortably close. So I think that, in the end, it's got to be a personal choice as to, because you love "Annie Hall," how you should think about Woody Allen. But it is something that's ever more with us and I don't know if we're ever going to come to a great answer on it. 

How important is the success of "The Birth of a Nation" for other African-Americans in Hollywood?:

TAYLOR: I don't know that its box office draw will have any impact on whether or not other African-American men and women are afforded the same opportunity to produce, direct, act in or star in films. I think given what's happened around this particular controversy, I don't see that it will dry up any new opportunity. I don't know that its success or lack thereof will do any more or less. By the way, [the Jackie Robinson story] "42" didn't do very well at the box office. If this film does not do well, I don't think it does a darn thing to [diminish] Nat Turner's legacy. It remains intact.

CUNNINGHAM: I think the exact same thing. In some ways it's good for us. It's another sign of progress when we talk about inclusion in the movies [and] also sustain and move past moments of mediocrity. Our fortunes don't hang on every single big movie that involves a black creator or actor. The truer mark of progress is when we can call something bad ... and move on. Part of the good of this sort of new and encouraging landscape is that we can be just as critical as we can be laudatory.

"The Birth of a Nation" opens Oct. 7. For more content like this, get The Frame podcast on iTunes.

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