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Opinion

Op-Ed: Should ‘The Birth of a Nation’ audiences care about Nate Parker allegations?

Nate Parker
“The Birth of a Nation” director and co-writer Nate Parker.
(Chris Pizzello / Invision / Associated Press)

Separate the art from the artist! That’s what critics and fans say whenever their favorite creators do something awful. Ezra Pound was a fascist traitor, but that shouldn’t stop us from enjoying his economy of language. Woody Allen has been credibly accused of molesting his adopted daughter, but we should set that aside in evaluating the psychological subtlety of his films.

Now people are applying the separation rule to Nate Parker, director and writer of the forthcoming film “The Birth of a Nation,” and his co-writer Jean Celestin. As several media outlets have reported, they were accused in 1999 of sexually assaulting a woman while she was unconscious; Parker was acquitted and Celestin was convicted, but Celestin appealed and eventually prosecutors let the case drop.  Years later, the woman committed suicide.

Some people have called for a boycott of ”The Birth of a Nation” while others, like Alyssa Rosenberg at the Washington Post, have argued that Parker and Celestin’s past shouldn’t influence the public’s evaluation of their film. “The only thing that determines whether ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is a truly great movie is what they put on screen,” Rosenberg said, and added that she’d do her best to “leave all the advance press about the movie and its makers” behind her when she entered the theater.

There’s certainly something seductive in the idea of watching a film without context or contamination; it sounds like a purer, more natural experience. But the truth is you can’t separate art from the world that made the art — very much including the artist. A clean break — art over here, artist over there — is in most cases impossible. And judging by how most people interact with art, they don’t really think it’s desirable, either.

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No one, for instance, advocates double-blind experimental viewing conditions, where audiences watch new movies without knowing who directed them. On the contrary, audiences go to the new Quentin Tarantino precisely because he’s an important and beloved director.  People regularly look at the artist’s past work, and past reputation, in deciding which films to see, or which music to hear.

When interpreting art, critics don’t routinely separate out the artist, either. The fact that Oscar Wilde was gay is central to many readings of “The Importance of Being Earnest.” Nobody thinks Beyoncé's race or gender is incidental to “Lemonade.”

Critics and fans respond to art based in part on what they know about the artist. So it makes sense that, in some cases, for some people, knowledge of the artist’s personal life is going to make them unable to enjoy the art, and perhaps unwilling to engage with it in the first place. 

If you’ve seen a handful of Steven Spielberg films, and you think they’re all simplistic sentimental bilge, you will probably avoid the latest Steven Spielberg feature at the cinema.  Granted, a history of bad artistry isn’t the same as a history of violence (or other immoral behavior). But if the first can influence your experience of art, why shouldn’t the second?

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The corollary to “separate the art from the artist” is “bad artists can make good art.” Well, of course they can; but reactions to art are complicated and individual. Speaking only for myself, I can’t listen to Bill Cosby stand-up routines any more, though I used to love them. His appeal was tied up in his nice-guy, everyman persona; now that 50 woman and counting have come forward to say that he is a rapist, that appeal is gone.

Other people may still be able to enjoy Cosby’s humor. There’s nothing wrong with that, and I don’t think people need to feel guilty about it. But neither is it proof that they’ve found a purer, better way to think about art.  

Maybe I’ll see “The Birth of a Nation;” Maybe not. I’m probably a little less likely to do so given the accusations against Parker and Celestin than I was before I heard about them. If I do go see it, though, the fact that Parker and Celestin are black men responding to a century of racist representation in Hollywood will affect how I assess the film — and so will the fact that they’ve been accused of sexual violence.

Noah Berlatsky edits the comics and culture website the Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the book “Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.”

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