The blacklisting of entertainment industry professionals on the altar of anti-communism after World War II has left an indelible stain on the American conscience. The 2015 film “Trumbo” serves as a scary reminder of how lives can be destroyed by mere accusation amplified through the mass media.
If you want to get a sense of how ideological passions can still inflict injustice, consider the witch hunt enveloping Nate Parker, director, writer and star of “The Birth of a Nation.” His film, based on an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, excited audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January and inspired Fox Searchlight to pay a festival record $17.5 million for the world rights. The film is scheduled for release Oct. 7.
The 36-year-old Parker, making his debut as a feature-film director, should be riding high these days. Instead, he is being branded as a rapist who got away with his crime. He is being further vilified as a symbol of a legal system incapable of treating women fairly, a pervasive rape culture on college campuses, athletic privilege and toxic masculinity.
That’s one hellish brew of villainy being dumped on a man who was found not guilty 15 years ago. NOT GUILTY! That’s what a jury decided after hearing the evidence against Parker, who was charged with raping an 18-year-old Penn State student who said she was intoxicated and unconscious. Parker was a sophomore wrestler at the university.
The jury found Parker’s roommate and fellow wrestler, Jean McGianni Celestin, guilty of sexual assault. An appeals court overturned the verdict, and the case against Celestin was dismissed after the accuser declined to testify again. Celestin helped write the story line for “The Birth of a Nation.”
Adding fuel to the witch hunt is the recent revelation that Parker’s accuser, who has remained unnamed publicly, committed suicide four years ago.
The future of Parker’s film, as well as his career, looks shaky because of the attacks, leveled in such publications as The New York Times and The Atlantic magazine. Some critics have called for a boycott of the film.
This week, the American Film Institute canceled a screening of the film and a question-and-answer session with Parker that had been scheduled for Friday.
“I have been the recipient of many different passionate points of view about the screening, and I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together — messenger and message, gender, race and more — before we see the film,” AFI dean Jan Schuette said in a statement.
Parker’s attackers are eager to selectively tear apart the trial or proclaim their ideological convictions as proof of Parker’s guilt. Consider these quotes:
The criminal justice system is so broken that, with regard to sexual assault cases, we have no faith in its ability to deliver a verdict of guilt and no confidence in a verdict of not guilty. – Willa Paskin, Slate magazine.
I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or “important” it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. – Roxane Gay, Purdue University professor in the New York Times.
Toxic masculinity creates the landscape for men who were “alleged” to have raped a woman, and later found guilty of rape (Celestin), to not stop their abuse and intimidation of their victim. — Deirdre Cooper Owens, assistant professor of history at Queens College, CUNY.
Thankfully, at least one brave soul writing for a major media publication takes aim at the virulent attacks on Parker and warns against making him a scapegoat in the gender wars. Justice “requires a cultural climate in which the accused are given the benefit of the doubt, … and someone who is found not guilty is treated as innocent, barring a glaring miscarriage of justice,” says writer Cathy Young in the Washington Post. She continues with these thoughtful observations:
We are rightly wary of the misogynist subtext in the cliche of the woman “crying rape.” But it is equally sexist to put women who come forward as rape victims on a pedestal of absolute credibility — and this form of chivalrous sexism, too, is a very real and ugly part of our history.
As we seek to do right by victims of sexual violence, cases in which the alleged victim and the alleged offender each tell a plausible story pose a vexing dilemma. Let’s not try to resolve it by discarding fundamental principles of justice that protect everyone. And let’s not make Nate Parker the scapegoat.