Tarnished Triumph? Nate Parker’s ugly past punctures “Birth of a Nation” balloon

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Actor turned actor/director Nate Parker and his film,  “Birth of a Nation”, were sensations at this year’s Sundance Film Festival. A whopping $17.5 million was paid for the rights to this account of the slave rebellion Virginian Nat Turner led in Virginia in 1831.

This little known chapter in American history has been, by all accounts, thrillingly brought to life, and “Birth of a Nation,” a cheeky attempt to reclaim that phrase from the racist D.W. Griffith silent classic that has worn it for over a century, is due out in October.

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Maybe.

Because with Parker’s fame has come with scrutiny. A lot of people went to college with him at Penn State, where he was a wrestler. And they started bringing up the rape he and his pal, Jean Celestin, who got a STORY credit on the film, wriggled out of (civil settlement from the university, retrial abandoned when the victim bailed out of it).

And that is the narrative that is engulfing the film. Even cheerleaders for the movie and for Parker have had to address it, bending over backwards to talk about the era he was in school — it was the ’90s people, to hear Jezebel tell it, it was the Jim Crow 1940s — and the like. In an online media landscape where rape victims always get the benefit of the doubt and the trials of black men are regarded with a jaded eye (it took another black comic to bring down Bill Cosby), Parker coverage sits on the horns of a dilemma.

The victim attempted suicide multiple times, and according to her brother, succeeded in killing herself in 2012. That bombshell has rattled one and all, maybe even Parker.

But here’s the world he’s working in.

Woody Allen still makes movies, despite increasingly heated accounts of his relationship with his children and allegations of abuse.

Roman Polanski still works in Europe, where he sought refuge after drugging and raping a 13 year old girl. He’s over 80, still free and still working. Lionized by some.

Hollywood has continued to employ convicted sex offender Victor Salva (“Jeepers Creepers,” “Powder”). He videotaped himself molesting a 12 year old boy.

So it’s not like it’s a business that attracts saints, or holds talent to much of a moral standard. Mel Gibson? That’s anti-Semitism, another thing altogether.

But what will happen to “Birth”? Parker was slated to show it in Toronto, and do more awkward press interviews. 

He has tried to make amends, re-branding himself as an ardent supporter of women and womanhood. But the damage, two months before release, is piling up. The film is already tainted. Will this die down? Will the film be pushed back, or rolled out more quietly?

 

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