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Mel Gibson and Nate Parker – The Character Test and the Awards Race

The Oscar race is not meant to be a character test. The Academy is not handing out awards because someone is a flawless person who has never made a mistake and has a tidy closet. The award is supposedly given for only one reason: Highest achievement in cinema. That’s what it’s supposed to be about. We know it is often about anything but. It is about popularity and who you know and whether or not voters like the character you’re playing. Awards are often bestowed as a way for all of us to say yes, we approve of this and we are proud to have our vote reflect this.  But the point of film awards isn’t supposed to be about any of that. It’s supposed to be about the work. That’s the gold standard.

This standard held true when Roman Polanski won for The Pianist, and when Woody Allen won for Midnight in Paris. It was true when Sean Penn won for Mystic River, not to mention the countless men and women who have won with less than stellar reputations in town. But objectivity sometimes falters, as when Russell Crowe damaged his Oscar chances because he got in a brawl backstage at the BAFTAs. Timing is everything. Time heals. If something “happens” when there is no time to recover before the voting happens, well, there is no recovering from it.  A 40 year old rape case still haunts Roman Polanski, in some ways worse now than ever.  Woody Allen’s crimes and/or misdemeanors are brought back up every time he releases a new film because his son Ronan reminds us all of what went down. He does not deserve awards, declares Ronan and so a new standard was set: should people be forgiven for what they’ve done, even if it was a very long time ago? Whether the impartial standard of artistic merit granted to Polanski and Allen remains true for Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation is a question we will see answered this year.

When I wrote my last predictions article, some of you asked me why The Birth of a Nation had been taken out. The reasons are complicated. Although I greatly admire wishful thinkers like Kris Tapley or Scott Feinberg who are not ready to deep-six the film completely, I can tell you from experience that the AMPAS includes members who had to be virtually forced into watching 12 Years a Slave — in fact, many of them claimed that they never watched it, but gave the film their vote anyway, for history’s sake — probably won’t watch the film.

This is a group that throughout its entire existence, only really started nominating films with black actors in the lead in the 1960s, and never with all-black casts until, perhaps, Sounder in 1972. The Color Purple was nominated in 1985, but partly because Spielberg took so much flak for having directed that movie from both the white and black community, no film with an all-black cast was nominated again until Precious, almost 25 years later.

This is a group that has only nominated three black directors in its entire history of 88 years. You can count on one hand the films with all-black casts that have been nominated for Best Picture. We’ve witnessed the tendency of Oscar voters to overlook great films by black directors, starring black actors about black themes. They almost completely shut out Do the Right Thing. They chose not to make history by awarding Ava DuVernay with a Best Director nomination. They did not award Steve McQueen Best Director for a film that won Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave. You tell me why anyone should assume this group would move beyond the rape hysteria surrounding Birth of a Nation and 1) watch the movie at all, 2) nominate the movie for anything.

To me, it’s a tragedy that so many have to pay the price for what I consider to be an hysterical mob out for second-hand justice. I’ve gone over the extensive documentation of rape case myself. Most people are getting their information from a civil case filed against the university — told from one side only and, like all civil cases, designed and argued to elicit maximum damages.

None of us have ever fully heard the side of the story presented in Parker’s defense, but we carry with us everything we know about campus rape and assault and we’re all acutely aware of how seldom victims get justice. So all of that frustration from past unfairness gets thrown into the mix — and if Nate Parker now has to pay the price for our own anger and sadness, so be it.  Adding to the tragedy to an unimaginable extent, the plaintiff committed suicide after many decades of battling drug and alcohol addiction. By the end of her torment, it’s been said she believed she was god and the devil at the same time. It is not fair to pin all of that mental illness on Nate Parker. Sorry. He should not have done what he did that night, but he had only known her a couple of days. There was no way for him to know she was that unstable. Her own family barely knew. Moreover, this is not a serial offender we’re talking about here. It was an isolated incident, one awful night, when three people each made a string of very bad decisions.

What the angry mob demands from Nate Parker is to refute the jury’s verdict, to confess and say, “Yes, I raped her,” and to say he’s sorry. That might satisfy the angry mob but it isn’t going to undo what happened. It isn’t going to help anyone and it certainly isn’t going to positively impact his own success or failure — with this film and with the rest of his promising career.

He has always maintained his innocence and insisted that he believed the sex was consensual. He has admitted it was wrong but that it was not, in his mind, rape. Personally, I believe him and take him at his word. I also understand what it’s like at that age, exploring the often perilous freedoms of college life, with too much alcohol involved, and impressionable minds who don’t yet fully know the boundaries or understand the gravity of consequences. Nothing can take back the tragedy inflicted on this girl’s life by the wrong choices made by everyone that night, but I sincerely feel Nate Parker learned from his reckless mistakes.

The story of Nate Parker cannot help but be influenced by the facts at hand — that Parker is black and the awards community is (mostly) white. The question of character will come up again this year with Mel Gibson and his very well reviewed Hacksaw Ridge, which supposedly features a brilliant performance by Andrew Garfield. The question has been raised as to whether the Hollywood community is ready to “forgive” Gibson for the things the press outed him for years ago — a taped conversation with his wife, a drunken incident with cops where he yelled offensive epithets. Again, I strongly oppose judging anyone’s worth as an artist for awards or anything else against their character — unless their personal lives adversely impact their work. In Gibson’s case, Hacksaw Ridge partly addresses the demons he’s wrestled with in his life, which makes the outcome an interesting prospect.

Do any of us have the absolute right to stand in judgment of Gibson or Parker and act as though we’ve led perfectly pure lives? Doesn’t the very idea of that make you uncomfortable? It does me. We are human and therefore we’re flawed and we make mistakes.

I strongly disagree with the idea that something in someone’s past can smear them for life. Such a penalty feels especially unjust if we’re talking about black filmmaker in a white filmmaker’s world. I’ll never understand this double standard. I’ll never accept it. But the reality is the reality, and I know these people, these voters. I believe I know exactly what they will do to this movie and this filmmaker.

The internet has enabled human beings to come together in a way never before seen in all of human history. Until about twenty years ago, we got all our news from a half-hour every evening on television, or from newspapers, or from each other. We mostly existed cocooned safely in our own tribes or neighborhoods. We could be tourists somewhere else or encounter tourists here. The mass hysteria that might erupt did so in isolation, in small towns throughout our history. But now, we have become a global community and one that seems to be only moving in one direction. We do form tribes but they tend to form around a person — a magnetic celebrity or politician or a political ideology. Even those of us who take a side in a well-known criminal case — OJ Simpson, Adnan Syed. We form tribes and we fight wars with hashtags, think pieces, and comments.

There is a new whirlwind of hysteria almost every day. It doesn’t even matter whether it’s true or not. We see it. We react to it. It is forwarded around the internet like wildfire. By the time a correction or retraction is made, it is often ignored.

I have been online since 1994 and have seen the changes take place. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr and other massive gathering places where human beings can congregate have enabled a profusion of benefits and dangers for humanity. As  a way to bring people together, it can be a wonderful thing. But it also amplifies our best and worst impulses, in many good ways, and some ways more troubling. Swarms of hate and hysteria are a frightening phenomena. So are bullying or stalking or hacking, or any of the other online intrusions that do harm to people in real life. The driving characteristic I’ve noticed about these waves of opinion is the way we all react first, think later. We don’t always know what we’re doing because we’ve never really gone through anything like this before. Ever. In our 200,000 year history as Homo sapiens.

Of special concern to those of us who love cinema is the knee-jerk public stoning that is often inflicted upon filmmakers. While we’ve come to expect this in politics or real-world news events, the implications are trickier when our movies or artists become targets. When Meryl Streep wore a T-shirt last year that was considered offensive by some, no subtlety or nuance seemed to be tolerated among those who judged her online, especially with young people for whom social justice trumps all. Suddenly, Streep was branded a racist. The amount of vitriol aimed at her surprised me. I guess because it’s laughable to think of Meryl Streep, of all people, as a racist. It felt very Salem witch trial to me. “She’s a witch!” is not all that different from aiming unfounded ire at Meryl Streep and hastily calling her a racist.

I deeply believe this is the wrong direction for society to take, since humans have proven time and again that we cannot control ourselves when we become a furious mob. We lose all sense logic and reason. The hysteria rises to a crisis point, and it’s only luck if the fury dissipates  before irreversible damage is caused.

When the dust settles on this year in film I fear that Nate Parker’s career will be ruined. The reality is that too many people I know don’t care whether that happens or not. It should be troubling to all of us to think that an angry mob can seize power, cherry-pick their beliefs, and declare with 100% certainty: “He’s a rapist!” Of equal concern is the way labels like “rapist” only seem to stick to those who don’t enjoy the built-in privileges of the white patriarchy, as we’ve seen with persistent attempts to destroy Hillary Clinton with baseless charges that she’s “corrupt” and “untrustworthy.”

Because the foundation of our society relies on faith in our courts and judicial system (however flawed they may frequently be), it seems strange to me that in 2016, at least online, we’ve completely abandoned the idea that justice is ever served in the courts. Too many times since mass media became adept at shaping public opinion, we’ve see angry gangs arise that are ready execute their own brand of vigilante justice. If they can’t get the decision they want from judge or jury, they’re all too eager to attack and punish any artist who made a gaffe they see as intolerable, wore something they find offensive, or committed a deed they deem is forever unforgivable. The mob attacks. The accused can apologize or strive to make amends. Sometimes they’re forgiven and given another chance; sometimes they’re branded and ruined for life.