It is award season in Hollywood- and it looks like a black year- which is a good thing. I’m glad to see it- only that probably means we’ll hit another 2 or 3 year stretch of uninterrupted whiteness. But frankly that doesn’t make me as angry as it probably should. That “boycott” a year back looked and sounded weird to me- famous millionaires complaining about not getting awards? That is hard to get fired up about no matter what color the protesters are. Compare that lightweight controversy to the conspiracy against Nate Parker this year and you will see something to really get angry about. We witnessed a high tech lynching back in October of 2016 and we stood by and watched it happen while we had the power to stop it.
Bringing the under-told story of Nat Turner to the big screen is a feat of will and skill that should have made writer/actor/director Nate Parker an important figure in Hollywood circles for many years to come. Executing it in a fashion that makes the film must-see viewing for all politically and socially conscious stakeholders in the American experience should have made him a household name everywhere else. But it didn’t play out that way- and no politically conscious black man was surprised. Becoming a successful director- one with the writing skills to construct a compelling cinematic narrative and the acting chops to bring it to life on screen is to become powerful and influential in perpetuity. To put it mildly, that is a rarity in Hollywood. But it was clear from the first frame that Nate Parker put in the work and the Birth of a Nation is a masterpiece- one of the finest films ever produced that reflects the beast that was American slavery and the reality of life for the people it chewed up and spit out.
One of the under-acknowledged legacies of American slavery is the spirit of betrayal that frequently possesses its progeny- oftentimes without them even realizing it. Usually when black people betray other black people for the benefit of white puppet-masters, they really think they are doing something noble. But Gabrielle Union has no excuse. Regardless of any twists her life’s journey may have taken, she is by every measure a woman of great privilege now and she absolutely should have known better than to do what she did to Nate Parker. She should be ashamed of herself.
The whole world now knows about the 1999 rape charge he faced while a college student at Penn State University- the one he was acquitted for. This case has been over for many, many years. But we live in the era of social media; and in a time where there is enormous currency in victimhood; and in a pathetic period where sitting on your ass at home passes for a “boycott”- replacing legitimate activism. This was a perfect storm for many powerful interests to get exactly what they wanted at the expense of Mr. Parker without anyone noticing or even caring. Many powerbrokers in Hollywood desperately wanted Birth of a Nation to tank. Competing film studios are the obvious culprits and you don’t need to dig very far to find the energy behind their schadenfreude. The record is clear that Nate Parker was poised to become a huge star and Birth was his break-out party.
But don’t take my word for it. Explore the rave reviews and accolades Birth received in the international film community before the phony controversy erupted. Explore the bidding war that followed its screening at the Cannes Film Festival between several Hollywood studios desperate to gather the positive PR that would certainly precede the boatload of Oscar nominations it would bring. My insistence that Birth was a special film means nothing, but the record setting $17.5 million dollars paid for the film by Fox Searchlight who won the bidding war means everything. It is proof that Mr. Parker’s ship had come in before selective outrage and lazy activist posturing blew holes in it and sank it like the Titanic. And Gabrielle Union was the one firing the cannons.
Evidently, Mr. Parker’s attitude about the circumstance of his trial was off-putting. He did not show adequate remorse for whatever happened that night. He didn’t beg for forgiveness or demonstrate enlightenment in the years that followed his acquittal. But since when does a man have to demonstrate contrition for a crime that he did not commit? Who wouldn’t be bitter after the ordeal of being arrested, jailed, charged and tried? I do not know the details of the case and frankly I do not care to know them. Mrs. Union has stated that she read all 700 pages of the trial transcript and still cannot say what happened. In a nation of laws all that matters is that he faced the charges in court and was acquitted. But life is not that simple in America. In a capitalist society there are ways to punish somebody without confining them to a penitentiary. You can lock away their potential; arrest their prospects; negate their achievements; and most painful of all you can mess with their money. That is the high tech lynching for uppity blacks that Clarence Thomas complained about. That truth struck a chord so clearly and so forcefully that it shut down the sideshow that the Senate Judiciary Committee was conducting at his expense. I have probably not agreed with a single word that Justice Thomas has spoken since then, but he dropped the mic that day. Sadly, it may be too late for that potent phrase to rescue Mr. Parker.
The cruelest irony of this bizarre affair is that it was black women- led by Mrs. Union- that were the lynch mob that surrounded Nate Parker. All that was needed for this mob too attack was the mere allegation of rape. His acquittal was ignored because it was inconvenient to the narrative of victims standing up to violators, striking a blow against the history of sexual violence and victim silence. This is a byproduct of living in a society where the space between allegation and condemnation has been reduced to 140 characters in some cases or just a few synapses in others.
Mrs.Union’s public statements ginning up condemnation of Mr. Parker convicted him and sentenced his film to death. She is by no means alone but she was the bright shiny object that turned a flicker into the flame that lit the torches for the mob. God only knows how she wound up writing an Op Ed for the LA Times but out of nowhere she became a featured writer at one of the largest newspapers in the world. The seduction of being the center of attention on an elevated level was powerful and the facts just got in the way. I’ll credit her with the honesty of admitting that she doesn’t know what happened in that room on that fateful night between the parties involved. But it would have been far more creditable had she abstained from writing the piece altogether on that basis. But she wanted it both ways: grab all the media attention she could hold and yet admit that she had no legitimate grounds to take a position.
Even if the opportunity for a byline in the LA Times was too enticing to pass up, she should have exercised the intellectual discipline to construct a piece that did not conflate Mr. Parker’s incident with her own harrowing experience with sexual violence. She made it about her and she was wrong for doing so. Trampling on this man’s life and destroying his work to indulge in a public display of personal catharsis was egregious and demands to be called out. If Mrs. Union was so offended by sexual violence or predatory behavior, then she may have been better served by writing a piece about the Catholic Church. Word is she has had some connection to that institution where it is a known fact- not a mere allegation- that rampant sexual victimization has occurred. Perhaps the fact that Mr. Parker’s accuser took her life thirteen years after the incident was seen as a suitable substitute for jurisprudence to condemn him despite his acquittal. But one does not have to be a psychologist to know that this woman’s death, while undeniably tragic, has no bearing on Mr. Parker’s guilt or innocence of the charges she had brought against him. But people desperate to be taken seriously rarely have time for that kind of restraint. Before anymore harm is done to this man’s life and career, people need to put away their self-righteous judgments about whatever contrition they speculate that Mr. Parker should have shown. Instead, they should be focusing on the public apology that Gabrielle Union most certainly owes to him.
Shame on her and anybody who thinks an accused man should be cowed and contrite regardless of the truth. And shame on all of us politically and socially conscious black men for standing by and witnessing the high-tech lynching of Nate Parker- when all we had to do was buy a damned ticket and watch this outstanding film instead. He did his part and made the movie we always wanted to see on the big screen. And in return we literally and figuratively left him hanging.