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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?”

Indeed, most of the defence for Parker has come in the form of questioning the relevance of the allegations to the film’s release. There are those who think the artist’s personal life does not have anything to do with the piece of art, and those who think the two are intertwined.

Take Woody Allen for example: during his 12-year relationship with Mia Farrow, he started - and soon ended up marrying - the latter’s adoptive daughter, then only 21 years old and 35 years younger than the director. On top of this, Farrow’s other adoptive daughter Dylan has accused Allen of molesting her when she was just seven years old. In an open letter, she described the assault in detail.

With those facts known to the public, Allen was still awarded the prestigious Cecil B. DeMille Award for his lifetime achievements at the 2014 Golden Globe Awards. And the accusations surely have not stopped him from releasing a new comedy every year, with a number of them containing a young, innocent girl starting a relationship with an older man (Whatever works, Irrational Man, Café Society…).

I find there is something uncomfortable in watching Allen’s own, twisted fantasy in his own film, and even more so to then see those films getting praised by critics and moviegoers alike. In a similar vain, after pleading guilty to "unlawful sexual intercourse" a 13-year-old in 1977, director Roman Polanski fled to France. Two years later, his film Tess would be nominated for six Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director.

The truth is, countless artists have had dark encounters in their personal lives. Ezra Pound and T.S Eliot have both been accused of anti-semitism, Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem (The White Man’s Burden) that is seen as largely favouring white superiority and imperialism. But there are also things in an artists’ life that can make us appreciate its work even more, such as Beethoven being almost completely deaf when he wrote his 9th Symphony.

I think it is true that a certain degree of separation is needed when evaluating, or simply reading a work of art, simply because I don’t think it necessary to know anything about an author before reading, watching, or listening to their work.

That being said, when the work of art itself seems to include personal aspects of the author’s life, then it becomes hard not to see both as intertwined. By including a rape scene in his film, Turner has specifically brought his personal life into the fray, the same way Woody Allen has done in some of his own films. Therefore the audience should not be blamed or wronged for feeling uncomfortable watching a film like The Birth of a Nation.

The Birth of a Nation is released in the UK this Friday. 

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