TORONTO - “The Birth of a Nation” is one of the best films of the year. But it’s release has been clouded by controversy. So the question is: can you separate an artist’s work from the artist?
That comes down to a personal decision on the viewers part. Think about it this way: we still watch and praise Roman Polanski’s “Chinatown.” Though, back in 1977, Polanski faced multiple sexual assault charges that involved a 13-year-old girl. Facing possible prison time, Polanski fled the country and hasn’t returned, that we know of, since 1978. Yet, “Chinatown” is considered one of the greatest films of all time. It’s not just Polanski. There are so many other actors & filmmakers that have controversial pasts that people seem to look past when watching their movies.
In 1999, “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker was accused of rape. He was arrested, tried and acquitted. But 17 years later, he still faces the consequences. Now, don’t mistake what I’m saying as me defending Mr. Parker. I’m only speaking on the facts and the information that has been released. Regardless of any information, we can all agree it’s a horrific situation and I feel awful for the victim’s family.
Here are facts. “The Birth of a Nation” is a new drama that tells the story of Nat Turner, who was an enslaved preacher that led an armed rebellion in Virginia in 1831. The movie was sold for a record $17.5 million at the Sundance Film Festival and shot to the top of many people’s lists for this year’s Academy Awards. As we approached the film’s release date, this Oscar buzz became heavily overshadowed by the Nate Parker rape charges.
As I mentioned above, Parker was accused of rape while he was as student at Penn State. He was arrested, tried and acquitted. Tragically, the victim later committed suicide in 2012. This came as a shock to Nate Parker and the world after the victim’s brother spoke about it in an interview with Variety. While Parker has addressed the situation, the family still blames him for the suicide. Most recently, he appeared live on “Good Morning America,” where he refused to apologize and continued to maintain his innocence.
One of Parker’s co-stars, Gabrielle Union, has also acknowledged the situation. Union was raped at gunpoint at the age of 19. For the first time in Union’s career, she is taking on a role playing a character who is a victim of rape. Last month, Union wrote a powerful op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, where she spoke on Nate Parker’s allegations. While she said she can’t take these allegations lightly, she talks about the power and importance of Parker’s film.
I recently had the chance to sit down with Union to discuss this op-ed and how she feels about promoting a film where the director is facing a rape controversy. Union says that the film is bigger than Nate Parker and she emotionally opened up about her past.
WATCH MY GABRIELLE UNION interview (app users: click here to watch):
I also sat down with Nate Parker. To be honest, I was surprised he was doing any interviews considering everything that was going on. In my opinion, it’s smart that Parker and the studio came out in front of it and still did press for the movie. The film tells an important story and was years in the making for Parker.
Normally, when I do interviews, I love to focus on the filmmaking; i.e. the shots, the score, the effects, the thought-process behind a certain sequence. Though, this controversy was such massive news, I had to make a decision to somehow address it. I had written about four or five questions for the interview which took place Saturday, September 10 at the Toronto International Film Festival. The night before, Parker’s film received a massive standing ovation from the crowd. I had heard that other reporters were touching on the controversy in their interviews, but that Parker was bringing it all back to the movie. This would lead me to believe that he was 100 percent prepared to field questions and how to answer them.
While I was in Gabrielle Union’s room, I walked away with an idea of how to approach Parker. During my emotional interview with Union, she said that this film was bigger than Nate Parker. I found that interesting because the film itself is extremely powerful and needs to be seen. To hear Union, a rape victim, say that people should still see Parker’s film even with his controversy, was a powerful thing.
Therefore, I walked in Parker’s room with a 4-minute time slot. I threw out my first question which was about a very emotional sequence in the film where he is preaching and crying. I wanted to know when you are a director and the star of the film, how do you direct yourself in a moment where you have to emotionally breakdown. Basically, how do you do both jobs at once? Parker went on to answer this question for the majority of my 4-minute interview window. I kind of felt that he was trying to eat up as much time with that answer, but I won’t ever know that for sure. I still knew I had to address the rape allegations. Parker ended his answer and I quickly jumped in with the thoughts that I had when talking to Gabrielle Union. I used her line about the film being bigger than Nate Parker as a way to talk about the issue while also speaking on the importance of the film’s story.
Again, I’m not defending Nate Parker. I’m simply stating that a film and a person’s personal life are two separate things. I feel that movies should be judged by what’s on the screen. I know he was acquitted and I know that the victim committed suicide years later. That’s an awful situation and there’s no way to look past it. It has to be addressed considering the film deals with rape as well. It really comes down to whether or not you can separate the personal life of a filmmaker and the story he or she is telling.
Watch my interview with NATE PARKER (app users: click here to watch):
For me personally, I found “The Birth of a Nation” to be one of the most powerful films I’ve seen this year. The final shot of the movie is incredible. That shot will stay with me for years to come. I think the performances are outstanding and I think it’s a story that people need to learn about.
In this case, I personally think you should separate the artist from their work regardless of how you feel about Mr. Parker. The historical relevance of this story supersedes what you might think personally about Mr. Parker.
Please share your thoughts with me via email: kevin.McCarthy@foxtv.com