Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation: Is it right to separate art from the artist?
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With the upcoming release of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation, the question of how much, if at all, should an artists’ personal life interfere with our appreciation of its craft has become a relevant topic. Indeed, Parker has seen a good amount of publicity surrounding his period drama film (which deals with a slave rebellion in 1831 Louisiana) revolve around allegations on his personal life: in 1999, Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of having raped a female student while attending Pennsylvania State University. Although both deny the accusations and have claimed the sexual encounter was consensual, and Parker having been acquitted of all charges in 2001, a large shadow of doubt remains. Those doubts were only emphasised by the alleged victim’s suicide in 2012, with her death certificate stating she suffered from "PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse". To make matters worse, The Birth of a Nation includes a brutal rape scene and, even though the story itself is based on slave rebellion leader Nat Turner (played by Parker himself), that one scene is entirely fictional. In a poignant piece in Variety, Sharon Loeffler, the sister of Turner and Celestin’s alleged victim, wrote: “[…] the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. […] I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape […] I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.” Once a strong Oscar contender, the shifting press coverage of The Birth of a Nation has largely reduced the chances of the film being present during award season. It has also undoubtedly contributed to it being labelled a box-office bomb after only grossing $7.1 million in its North American opening weekend, finishing sixth at the box-office. Some have come out in support of Parker; performer Harry Belafonte for example, has stated: “All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?”
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