Roman Polanski’s “J’accuse (An Officer and a Spy)” and Nate Parker’s “American Skin,” the two most contentious titles to screen at this year’s Venice International Film Festival, are each structured around a trial.
A series of trials, actually, in “J’accuse,” Polanski’s absorbingly detailed account of the Dreyfus affair. In that famous 19th century scandal, the French Jewish army captain Alfred Dreyfus was accused of spying for Germany, convicted of treason, sentenced to life in prison and ultimately exonerated in a series of retrials that exposed anti-Semitism at the highest levels of the French military and government.
In the contemporary-set drama “American Skin,” written and directed by Parker with an exceedingly heavy hand, the trial takes place beyond the confines of the legal system. It’s a provocative stunt and a call for justice orchestrated by an African American man (played by Parker himself) grieving his 14-year-old son, who was fatally shot by a white police officer.
Both pictures are dramas of investigation and vindication, focused on the pursuit of justice and the rebuke of systemic racism. That gives them a patina of moral high-mindedness that is complicated, and some would say thwarted, by the histories and agendas of their respective directors. They have thus become the latest exhibits in our eternal debate over whether the worth of the art can ever be separated from the misdeeds of the artist — or whether those misdeeds should disqualify the artist from making his art in the first place.
To recap, for those who need it: The 86-year-old Polanski, long one of the world’s most acclaimed filmmakers, has been a fugitive from American justice since pleading guilty in 1977 to having unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor. That widely publicized controversy didn’t stop him from winning an Oscar in 2003 for directing “The Pianist,” though he was expelled from the motion picture academy last year in the wake of renewed attention to the case.
Parker became a brief Sundance sensation with his prize-winning 2016 writing-directing debut, “The Birth of a Nation,” only to see the movie and his career tank after news resurfaced of his 1999 rape trial (which ended with his acquittal) as well as the fact that his accuser had committed suicide in 2012. At his Venice press conference for “American Skin,” the 39-year-old Parker appeared humble and chastened, and acknowledged that his earlier remarks about the matter had been “tone-deaf.” A supportive Spike Lee, appearing alongside Parker at the conference, said, “Nate is not hiding. He’s answering the questions. And we’re moving forward.”
But it’s far from certain that moving forward is even possible in a culture with a long memory for outrage. That question will hardly be settled here; nor will it be settled if and when these two movies eventually make their way into the world. (As of this writing, neither one has U.S. distribution, although Polanski’s film has been acquired for theatrical release in numerous territories worldwide.)
But in engaging this debate, we should be especially cautious about drawing an easy equivalency between these two artists, even if the festival has all but invited us to do so. When Venice programmers announced the selection of “J’accuse” back in August, followed some days later by the addition of “American Skin,” more than a few observers were quick to condemn the festival for giving two accused sexual offenders a platform. (Like many other festivals in Europe, where the #MeToo movement has been met with greater criticism and resistance than in North America, Venice has relatively few qualms about inviting filmmakers who have been deemed toxic.)
“J’accuse,” the better of the two movies by far, also has the more prestigious showcase: It’s one of 21 films competing for the Golden Lion, the festival’s top prize. One of its producers, Luca Barbareschi, had considered pulling the film from competition after the director Lucrecia Martel, president of the main jury, said she would not attend the film’s gala premiere and “celebrate” Polanski (who did not attend the festival). She later clarified her remarks, defending the film’s inclusion and noting that she would evaluate it on its merits.
Can those merits be evaluated and appreciated, apart from whatever you may think of Roman Polanski? I believe they can, although Polanski, it should be noted, has not made it especially easy. In an interview included in the press materials for “J’accuse,” the director said, “I must admit that I am familiar with many of the workings of the apparatus of persecution shown in the film, and that has clearly inspired me.”
Polanski, who lost his family as a child during the Holocaust, has the worst possible firsthand experience of anti-Semitic persecution. But if he is indeed likening his own legal misfortunes to those of Alfred Dreyfus — if he is putting himself, a confessed child rapist, in the shoes of an innocent, wrongly imprisoned man — then his comparison is truly indefensible in its moral idiocy.
The crucial counterpoint is that, to these eyes, the movie itself makes no such comparison. It would take an awful lot of interpretive hopscotch to see “J’accuse” as a special plea on behalf of its director, and it would come at the expense of actually seeing the movie itself. One of Polanski’s signatures as a filmmaker is the emotional distance he often maintains from his material; he brings a sense of irresolution and bitterly ironic humor to a story that another director might have played for easy redemption or triumph.
That was true of “The Pianist,” his masterfully poised adaptation of Wladyslaw Szpilman’s Holocaust memoir, and it is true of “J’accuse” as well. Notably, Dreyfus (played by an almost unrecognizable Louis Garrel) isn’t the movie’s protagonist. That role falls to the French army officer Georges Picquart (an excellent Jean Dujardin), a casual anti-Semite and former mentor of Dreyfus’ who supports the initial proceedings against him, but who becomes the movie’s slowly awakening conscience after he receives clear evidence of the man’s innocence. As Georges Clemenceau observed at the time: “Dreyfus was the victim, but Picquart was the hero.”
“J’accuse” is effortlessly absorbing procedural cinema: With its proliferation of intercepted documents and carefully scrutinized handwriting samples, it opens an engrossing window on the top-secret workings of 19th century French intelligence. Polanski, who wrote the script with Robert Harris (the writer of the novel on which it’s based), distills a complicated chain of evidence into a succession of highly incisive, disciplined scenes, superbly acted by an ensemble that includes Mathieu Amalric, Melvil Poupaud, Grégory Gadebois and Emmanuelle Seigner. All of them, like Polanski, have scaled their talents to the material with classical precision and intelligence.
One of the movie’s more sobering conclusions is that justice is both scant and elusive, and that it takes enormous determination to achieve even the mildest of moral reckonings. Curiously enough, these are also the conclusions of “American Skin,” although Parker’s film arrives at them through very different and considerably less effective means.
The movie opens with a mix of cellphone and body-camera footage showing a black Marine veteran, the none-too-subtly named Lincoln Jefferson (Parker), and his teenage son, Kijani, getting pulled over while driving home one night. The traffic stop quickly turns heated and violent. A year later, a student filmmaker named Jordin (Shane Paul McGhie) shows up at Linc’s door, asking permission to make his graduate thesis film about Kijani’s death.
What we are watching, then, is that film, or rather a clumsy facsimile of it. The cameras are still rolling when Linc and his allies, frustrated that police officer Mike Randall (Beau Knapp) was neither indicted nor disciplined for shooting Kijani, take the extraordinary step of arming themselves, storming the police station and subjecting Randall to their own mock trial.
A most unorthodox prosecutor, Linc insists on letting everyone — Randall and his angry colleagues, the bystanders and inmates Linc enlists to form a jury — have a voice in the matter. As a result, “American Skin” packs quite a range of talking points into its brisk 89 minutes: The characters engage in heated, urgent discussion of black lives and blue lives, implicit bias and racial profiling, cultural appropriation and exploitation.
But even if you find yourself nodding in agreement with the substance of Parker’s arguments — and I nodded more often than not — you may also wince in disdain at the clumsiness with which he advances them. The movie simulates the rough-hewn textures of a vérité thriller, all restless handheld cinematography and rapid-fire editing, and it turns out to be an egregiously bad choice for a script as tin-eared and contrived as this one.
The found-footage aesthetic imposes an awfully difficult standard of believability, and from beginning to end, “American Skin” is a jagged symphony of false notes, each one struck with a sledgehammer. The most charitable thing that can be said about it is that if Parker is attempting to simulate the work of a bad or inexperienced filmmaker, he succeeds beyond his wildest dreams.
I say all this as an admirer of “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker’s flawed but still powerful film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion. With “American Skin,” Parker is telling a very different story of armed revolt, and once more he stars as the man leading the charge. Playing the righteous avenger and the grief-stricken father is certainly one way to garner sympathy, especially when you’re as naturally charismatic a screen presence as Parker is, though his harshest critics may well accuse him of subliminally recasting himself as the wronged victim.
Truth be told, I didn’t spend a lot of time thinking about Parker’s personal and professional woes while watching “American Skin” (except during an early scene in which Jordin makes a wink-wink reference to the unpredictable judgments of festival audiences). Sometimes suspending one’s preconceived notions of a filmmaker is easier than it seems: It’s hard to seriously entertain a movie’s prospects as a comeback bid when it fails so completely as a movie.
Still, for every critic who slammed “American Skin,” you could probably find three or four moviegoers in Venice who found it deeply moving, if my highly unscientific study of postscreening reactions is any indication. Certainly Parker, after his show of contrition, leaves this festival with more goodwill than he arrived with, which may be more than one can say for Polanski, whose defiant self-pity has done him few favors. “J’accuse” more than vindicates his talent, but talent alone never made anyone a victim or a hero.