To run down the facts of the incident: A fellow student said at the time that Parker and Celestin had sex with her when she was unconscious. Parker was acquitted in court, while Celestin was convicted; when he appealed, the woman who filed charges decided she didn’t want to testify, and the case was not retried. The student later filed a lawsuit against Penn State; the university settled with her.
If Parker and Celestin intended to preempt coverage of this incident by speaking to the press, Parker in a long interview with Deadline’s Michael Ciephy and Mike Fleming, Celestin by email with Vulture’s Dee Lockett, their interviews have often created new frustrations. Celestin told Lockett that he had been “fully exonerated,” and Fox Searchlight, which is distributing the movie, gave a statement to Deadline suggesting that Parker had been “found innocent.” An acquittal is not the same as being declared affirmatively innocent, and a case not going to retrial is not the same thing as an exoneration. Even as both men have tried to clear the waters about their own experiences, they’ve muddied the debate about how guilt and innocence actually get determined in the justice system.
Damon Young at Very Smart Brothas has a highly sensible list of questions to some of the obvious questions that arise when an incident from a star’s past enters the public debate.
And as a critic, it’s profoundly odd to see “The Birth of a Nation” and its makers whiplash from one narrative to another. First, the movie was a passion project that Parker funded by raising the money himself, an Oscar contender that plumbs uncomfortable truths about our national past. Now, the movie could get pulled into a different buzz-saw, the one where we debate whether we can separate the art from the artist, and whether it’s moral to give our movie-going dollars to creators who have been accused of ugly or criminal acts.
But if wider publicity about the sexual assault case mean that buying a ticket to “The Birth of a Nation” feels less like an unambiguously positive political statement, and more like going to see, well, lots of other movies that emerge from Hollywood’s morally complicated studio system, that’s probably a good thing for it as art.
When a movie becomes a cause, treated like its success or failure will make or break the prospects for similarly marginalized filmmakers, or movies about similarly incendiary subjects, it becomes very difficult to discuss as a movie. Acknowledging any weaknesses in, much less outright hating, a movie that’s come to occupy this position can be interpreted as a hostile act, both to the film itself, and to the bigger ideas about the industry the movie is being forced to stand in for.
This is not to say that audiences are wrong to fear that a bad result for a movie that was a struggle to get made might narrow an already-slim path for filmmakers with new visions, or who haven’t walked conventional paths to Hollywood success. But trying to predict what lessons the entertainment industry will take from the box office is a fool’s game. Big numbers or Academy awards for directors like Steve McQueen or Kathryn Bigelow can just as easily be interpreted as testaments to their singular genius as they are to create more opportunities to black or female directors.
And paradoxically, making it impossible to talk about whether a movie is good or bad, and the reasons it does or doesn’t work actually serves as a sort of demotion. If a movie is so fragile that it needs to be protected from a harsh pan or even from more measured criticism, the message is that that it’s a lesser work. And given that smaller movies about American politics and history are already an endangered species in an environment where franchises and pre-packaged ideas are king, the least useful case we can make for said movies is that it’s only their politics, or their subject matter, or the identity of their creators that recommend them.
It’s been a bad season for pre-judging movies, whether we’re talking about a mild backlash against “Ghostbusters” that turned Paul Feig’s remake into a political cause rather than a goofy riff on a minor ’80s classic or the DC Comics fans who gave “Suicide Squad” positive ratings before they’d even seen it. And for all the furor around those two films, neither was a test case for the fate of independent film or a portal into an unhealed national wound.
So come October, I’ll be doing my best to enter the theater to see “The Birth of a Nation” and to leave all the advance press about the movie and its makers, be the word good or bad, behind. What Parker and Celestin did or didn’t do in 1999, and what their movie does or doesn’t augur for Hollywood matters. But the only thing that determines whether “The Birth of a Nation” is a truly great movie is what they put on screen.