The article about Nate Parker that Michael Cieply and Mike Fleming wrote for Deadline, it must be said, is quite bizarre. It distinctly reads like two different people with two different objectives wrote two different stories, and then smushed the two sides together and tried to turn it into a cohesive whole. It appears to be half obliging interview and half graphic exposé.
The more sympathetic part of the Deadline story is aimed squarely at the Oscar industry and at voters now summoned to be surrogate jurors. It raises the question of whether a person whose past is painfully problematic can ever deserve to win an Oscar. At best, it seems to ponder whether that person can even try to redeem his life by writing and directing one of the most daring films of the year. At worst, it insinuates questions as to whether this person’s search for artistic atonement (and subsequent award recognition) might be a disgusting slap in the face to the victim of the assault. “How can anyone even think about awards when issues linger like this?” And of course, that is a valid question to ask, just as it’s valid to ask whether Nate Parker’s past will erase any hope he might have for redemption, forgiveness, and yes, awards consideration if his work is worthy. We’re partly back to the age-old argument of whether we can separate the artist from the man (or woman), and we’re also in new territory because a black writer/director coming up in Hollywood is so rare as to be exceptional.
It’s a difficult subject to talk about unless you pick a side. Some will think what Nate Parker did (even if he was acquitted in court) was unforgivable and therefore it is not only wrong to consider him for awards recognition, but Fox Searchlight was wrong to select the film for distribution. This will be a persistent reaction, and an understandable one, particularly now in the era of extreme political correctness and outrage culture, but we’ll get to that later. Still, others will think that regard for Parker’s talent in the present should not be dragged into concerns about his past behavior, mistakes, or even crimes, be they proven or alleged. These people will feel his film should stand on its own and be judged on its own merits. Then there will likely be many who stand somewhere in between — those who acknowledge that what he did as a 19-year-old college student was a terrible thing, but can believe he’s learned from it and moved on to become a better man. Some will consider that his life — born to a teenage mother and growing up poor and black in America — has its own set of problems most people can’t fathom. I guess that’s where I sit. I fully recognize what he did was wrong. I sympathize with the victim and understand completely why she brought charges, why the university was sued for inadequate support, and why the torment still feels raw, even though 17 years have passed. And yet, I don’t agree that a past transgression, even as grievous as this, should condemn Nate Parker for life. And I don’t agree that he should be disallowed from trying to redeem his life to become a successful artist, when his talent has such potential to bring about important change.
I do think that he might do well to mitigate some of the damage by volunteering to talk to college and university athletic teams about what defines sexual assault. Unthinkable as it is to most of us, some young men might not know, even now, that you cannot have any kind of sex, oral or otherwise, with a person who is too drunk to stay awake, let alone give consent. He could use the dreadful lessons he learned to educate them from his own experience, and thus do much to protect future victims. It’s a complicated situation for him because he was not found guilty of rape or assault. He claimed then that he thought the sex was consensual. What he would need to say now is that just because you may think it’s consensual, by law it is not; it is sexual assault. If he does not adamantly admit his own wrongdoing, it becomes harder to leave it behind.
So yes, if you choose, you’re allowed to be angry that anyone would dare to worry about Nate Parker’s awards prospects when an incident like this continues to cast its awful shadow after 17 years. But I’m going to say that Nate Parker is allowed to be concerned about those awards prospects and to worry how this will affect his career going forward. Any African-American filmmaker would be. It’s all the more significant in a year when the Academy was supposed to finally take steps toward rectifying its utterly racist history of awarding mostly white actors and filmmakers in every branch, after its embarrassing oversight last year, shutting out worthy black actors for the second straight year.
If Sean Penn and Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are all Oscar winners, how can anyone say with a straight face that awards voters should withhold honors from filmmakers who have a checkered past? Woody Allen has been nominated 12 times since the Soon-Yi story broke. He even won Best Original Screenplay after his daughter wrote an op-ed alleging he sexually abused her. Yes, outrage culture has pitchforked Woody Allen into near exile, yet the Academy is still a-okay with the movies he makes. Roman Polanski won the Best Directing Oscar long after his own rape conviction. CONVICTION. Nate Parker was not even convicted, but do you really think these Academy voters will forget about what he did the way they forgot and forgave Polanski?
The reason this story is being discussed now is because people are beginning to see that the movie might not get a fair shake, which is perhaps why Parker has chosen to talk about it this week, before awards season gets underway. The problem for him is that he’s presenting his feelings to a culture that feeds on outrage. The outrage can quickly grow into a pitchforking mob. And that mob must see its own brand of justice paid. Whether it’s outrage about the FBI’s findings regarding Hillary’s emails or the justice conferred by the court system in this Nate Parker case, or any other — what the justice system decrees about allegations and how the public interprets the same events are starkly different now. Facts become less important than to out, shame, and pillory whomever the mob declares is a “bad person.” Thus, if you’re asking the question whether or not this case will impact Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s awards prospects the answer to that is absolutely. If you’re asking whether it should matter or not if it does, well, that one’s on you.