Friday, September 16, 2016

It's Handled, for Now

This is one of those pieces that I started but did not finish (because I wrote a few others in the interim); however, thanks to a new perspective, I am so glad that I waited to revisit this topic. I read this interview with actor Nate Parker a few weeks ago, and then this opinion piece the week before last written by his co-star Gabrielle Union.

For those who needed to hear from her regarding a position on his actions (not the film), you have it. Sorta. She offered him no absolution and stopped short of damning him, which means that she can condemn his behavior and still promote the film this fall. A brilliant King Solomon contrived by a savvy Olivia Pope-ish publicist no doubt.

What Union did say in her statement was something more profound about how we as a society treat victims of sexual violence across the board. We want to compartmentalize and rank experiences so that rape, sexual assault, pedophilia, and child molestation all operate as separate sins in different rings of hell. They do not. Crimes of sexual violence may take on various forms, but the damage done to the victims is the same. Irreparable.

When I read the Parker interview, it took about five minutes for the clouds of cynicism to form and ruin my inclination to give him benefit of the doubt. He used all of the right buzz words: calling himself a man of faith, invoking his roles as a husband and father, addressing male privilege, and even imagining a father-to-son talk with his 19-year old self about the concept of consent. But my hope faded with his admission that he never once in the last 17 years thought about the impact his actions had on that young woman until he learned that she had committed suicide back in 2012.

Let me make sure you fully get that: Nate Parker did not give a second thought to what might have happened to this woman after that fateful night 17 years ago. Let that marinate for just a minute.

Thus I have to question whether his sole motivation is to salvage whatever chance this film has at the box office next month. There will likely be no Oscar nominations, yet by seeming contrite enough, then maybe he will get another chance in a few years, like Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. Hollywood is like the black church when it comes to forgiveness. By confronting the devil and rebuking it now, Nate Parker lives to fight another day. Sure, he has to explain this to his children, his fans, his distributors, his partners, and his costars, but he is the only person available to offer up a version of the story. The young woman who accused him is forever silent. She cannot offer a rebuttal, except for what she left behind in those damning court transcripts. And those transcripts offer a conflicted narrative of her actions that night, one that has allowed Parker to regard himself as a victim all these years.

My inner cynic also took note of the fact that Parker's mea culpa was released through Ebony magazine, and not the mainstream press where his earlier misguided attempts to assert his innocence were first printed. Readers of the black press (like good church-going folk) tend to be sympathetic, forgiving and conspiratorial, so many of them were more troubled that his accuser was white and by the timing of this revelation. (By the way, Parker declined to address the matter on the record with Ed Gordon, who just launched a new show on Bounce TV.) I'm guessing the only statements that will be made to the mainstream press will come from surrogates, like Gabrielle Union whose piece took great pains to emphasize the historical importance of the film.

If my adamant stance against seeing the film in the theater makes me look like an unforgiving Miss McJudgey Pants, I can live with that, but I have never suggested that Parker should not be forgiven. Nor am I unsympathetic to the hard work of the other actors like Gabrielle Union whose position I respect because it was such a fine line for her to walk. The subject matter of this film is groundbreaking and hopefully it will inspire Hollywood to greenlight more courageous work by other talented writers and actors of color. And because we are all flawed and deserve second chances, I will eventually see the film either on DVD or cable.

I am encouraged that Nate Parker accepts that he has both a moment and a platform for addressing sexual violence. His choice to engage black media outlets could be regarded as a purely strategic move, (in a stroke of brilliance orchestrated no doubt by the Olivia Pope fixer on his PR team) or as an important first step in beginning a dialogue within the black community about rape culture. This moment will be squandered if we insist that the film is more important than his past. As a man of faith, he can certainly acknowledge his past and inspire us with words and deeds to demonstrate his growth and redemption.

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