The precedent for black indie film excellence at Sundance was set 25 years ago by Julie Dash. In 1991, Daughters of the Dust debuted at Sundance and won an award for cinematography while also being nominated for the prestigious Grand Jury Prize. It went on to become the first film directed by a black woman to be distributed theatrically in the United States. The gorgeous, emotive film opened to rave reviews from audiences and critics alone. And now, 25 years later, the film has experienced a resurgence. Beyoncé drew inspiration from Dash's epic for her visual album Lemonade, which has prompted Cohen Media Group to restore the film and schedule a new theatrical release.
This year, that tradition continued when Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation won the Grand Jury Prize and went on to set a record for the highest Sundance purchase ever at $17.5 million. The film was purchased by Fox Searchlight, which managed to snag 12 Years a Slave an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014. The difference however, is that Parker's film was purchased in the midst of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign and the industry's clamoring for more representation of black men and women in Hollywood and at the Academy Awards. And what's the easiest way to accomplish this? A slave movie. Let's forget for a second that the Nat Turner film isn't a "slave movie," it's a "revolt movie." Let's instead focus on the fact that both Birth and 12 Years focus on the brutalization of black women's bodies by slave owners (Gabrielle Union in the former, Lupita Nyong'o in the latter) to propel the narrative of a black man. Let's focus on the fact that Fox Searchlight, save for a smattering of romantic comedies in the early 2000s, only releases films with a predominantly black cast if they're guaranteed Oscar attention like 12 Years a Slave, Belle, Black Nativity, and, of course, The Birth of a Nation. The message isn't that Hollywood wants to tell black stories. The message is that Hollywood wants to tell black stories if they make white people weep enough to nominate it for an award.
The story of Nat Turner is important to be told for sure, and I'm sure The Birth of a Nation would inform many viewers of history they're not aware of. Parker didn't learn about Nat Turner until college. But honestly, read a book if you're that pressed about learning the history of Nat Turner. Turner's revolution took place in 1831 and history has not forgotten it, no matter how much Parker apologists attempt to hammer home the idea that without this film's release, an important piece of black history will be lost.
It is not a conspiracy that Parker's rape trial (he was acquitted on all charges) has resurfaced in 2016 — a story that took an even more tragic turn when it was revealed that the woman who brought the suit against him later took her own life. The man gave an interview with Variety with the intention of garnering a cover story so he could win awards for his film and nothing invites scrutiny like an Oscar campaign. He thrust himself into the spotlight and invited his friend and Nation credited co-writer, Jean Celestin, to a situation where their entire lives are put under a microscope. (The only difference, of course, is no one's writing articles about how Celestin shouldn't be allowed to write another film because he was convicted of assaulting a woman in 1999, even if that conviction was overturned. Because no one knows who he is. He's a screenwriter. As Raymond Chandler wrote for The Atlantic in 1945, no one gives a fuck about screenwriters in Hollywood.) "Why now?" Because Parker directed a vanity project, is starring in it, and wants to become famous from it like Kevin Costner with his white savior bullshit movie Dances With Wolves. This is why you write and direct and star in a film. In Parker's latest interview with Variety, he says that he reached out to Mel Gibson for advice. When we talk about the double standards that befall black men in Hollywood, that this scandal might ruin Parker's chance to release his masterpiece, that we need to ignore all aspects of human decency just to support a film, let us remember that Parker sought out Mel Gibson.
It's an obvious move on the surface — after all, Gibson did star in and direct Braveheart, which garnered him the Academy Award for Best Director and Best Picture in 1996. But look a little closer, and it highlights the toxic culture that men are allowed to profit from in Hollywood. Parker might be black, but he's still a man. And as a man, he had no qualms seeking advice from Gibson and then broadcasting the fact that he did in Variety. Among a myriad of offenses, Gibson was arrested for drunk driving, admitted to hitting his ex Oksana Grigorieva, and has hurled anti-black, anti-Semitic, and misogynistic slurs that were caught on tape. Of course, Gibson's anti-Semitism still earned him accolades from other male directors like Spike Lee and Quentin Tarantino for his film Apocalypto. It earned him the role of mentor to Nate Parker, who not only has been accused of violating a woman's body, but also once told BET.com that he would never play a gay character to "preserve the Black man." Many Parker apologists have attempted to whitewash his homophobic comments, arguing that even still, his film is too important to miss. I wonder where such fervor is for the upcoming A24 release of Moonlight, another independent film made by a black man, Barry Jenkins, based on a story by a gay black man, Tarell MacCraney, about the childhood, adolescence, and adulthood of a black gay man in Miami. If the movement to preserve Parker is truly about creating a "launch pad for conversation around how we can deal with our trauma collectively," isn't this black story just as important? Or is the conversation only important when it's about a heterosexual black male, sins be damned?
Even if we don't forgive, we often learn to forget about or ignore the sins of artists. I still refer to Roman Polanski as a rapist. But I also found myself recommending his film The Ghost Writer to a friend at a barbecue last weekend. I believe Dylan Farrow's account of being molested by Woody Allen. Yet I also attended a screening of Woody Allen's Cafe Society. If it were good, I'd probably have recommended it to people too. Because humans are able to divorce the artist from the art more often than people realize. The people afraid that a black man who's made an important movie will be "erased" from Hollywood are espousing nonsense. History shows that Parker will be just fine. And for the record, the latest mention of Polanski's upcoming movie brings up his sex abuse charges. Also for the record, Allen's trip to Cannes was marred with rape jokes, a slam from Susan Sarandon, and articles about why people will never see one of his films again. Years from now, Parker will still have the rape allegations mentioned in articles about his upcoming projects. The mere printing of the fact that Parker was accused of violating a woman's body in 1999 is not going to make the Cigarette Smoking Man lock him away in the X-Files. There will be hiccups, like canceled screenings, but history has proven that Parker will be allowed to make art for as long as he wishes.
You can't erase history. It's why Parker was drawn to a story like Nat Turner's. It's why he named the film after D.W. Griffith's historically racist 1915 film The Birth of a Nation. But it's also why Parker's past will never be forgotten. In the hopes that he could remove the stain of Griffith's film on cinematic history, he's merely traded it for his own.