The Birth of a Nation Can Contribute to Liberation—Re-Prosecuting Nate Parker Does Not
by Sunsara Taylor
August 25, 2016 | Revolution Newspaper | revcom.us
On the eve of the major release of a new film, The Birth of a Nation, which chronicles the heroic slave rebellion of Nat Turner, a huge controversy has broken out over 17-year-old allegations of sexual assault directed against the film's writer, director and star, Nate Parker. Despite the fact that Nate Parker was tried and found not guilty, growing numbers of commentators, including many prominent Black and feminist voices, are publicly insisting that they will not go see this film because of these allegations. This controversy threatens to imperil this film's reach and impact, even before it is released. This is very bad.
This film needs to be seen. Everyone in America—and many beyond—must confront both the horrors and integral role of slavery to this country. They also need to learn the heroism and story of Nat Turner, a man who led one of the most powerful and righteous uprisings against slavery in this country's history. It is extremely rare that a film like this gets made. Even rarer that it gets picked up and promoted as a major Hollywood release. Everyone who cares about liberation, and everyone who wants a culture and atmosphere where radical ideas and art can flourish, should fiercely oppose what is being done to bury this film in controversy and destroy Nate Parker and his co-writer, Jean Celestin. I have not yet seen this film, but any film dealing with such a topic must be seen, and must be judged on its content—not the artist.
This does not mean that we should dismiss or downplay the horror of rape. As I have written much about, rape is a horrific crime. It not only shatters the lives of the women who are its victims, the constant threat of rape is a weapon through which all women are terrorized. It is a key tool enforcing the all-around oppression and patriarchal domination of all women in every part of the world. All of this is something that everyone should fight against, urgently and with great passion.
But re-prosecuting and convicting Nate Parker in the “court of public opinion” 17 years after he was tried and found not guilty of rape is very wrong. It will not help to liberate women—or anyone else. In fact, it works against doing so.
It is the case both that throughout history women have been silenced if they dare speak out about having been raped AND that throughout the history of the U.S., the accusation of rape against Black men in particular has been used as a license to kill. So is there no way to sort this out? There is, but only in the context of the search for the truth and the struggle to break ALL traditions chains.
As stated in a very important piece laying out important questions of principle and method in the wake of accusations against Bill Cosby,
“[I]t is very important to fight to, first of all, create the kind of atmosphere in society overall and in different institutions and parts of society, that make it much more difficult for rape and sexual assault to be carried out, and that encourage and support women in resisting this and in coming forward to raise this and seek justice when it does happen, while at the same time insisting on a consistent approach of proceeding in relation to accusations of rape and sexual assault, and accusations of crimes and wrongdoing in general, through a process that relies on a scientific method and approach and where the kind of 'trial by media' and 'media tyranny' that is so commonplace these days, and the very poisonous atmosphere this creates and reinforces, will be firmly rejected and denounced.”
Make no mistake: what is being done against Nate Parker and The Birth of a Nation is nothing more than a Trial-by-Media and Trial-by-Social-Media. It’s a trial by the culture of “gotcha,” by what amounts to hearsay—with absolutely no criteria of truth. It’s a trial by what the “mob” is led to think which, by the way, in a class-divided, patriarchal, white-supremacist society will inevitably end up targeting and scapegoating the most oppressed. Do people really need to be reminded of “I heard the Black boy whistled at the white women” or “that loose woman was asking for it,” to see where this will lead—and has led time and again.
Even when not directed against the oppressed, this approach is wrong anyway. It works against the scientific search for the truth, which is essential to the process of real liberation and which is an essential part of any truly just and vibrant society.
It’s NOT a Conspiracy Theory to Ask: Why Now?
Even if Nate Parker had been found guilty of rape 17 years ago—which he was not—it would be necessary to ask: Why is this being resurrected now, so many years after the fact on the eve of this film's release?
The accusation—and acquittal—has been known for years and there are no new developments. The only thing new is that a major publication decided to whip up a storm cloud of controversy around it on the eve of the release of this new film—including by digging up and revealing that the woman involved committed suicide four years ago. In fact, some members of the woman's family have made the important point that they “are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals.”
At every step along the way, people in powerful institutions made decisions to manufacture this controversy where none had existed. Someone had to decide to run a major piece in Variety suggesting (i.e., prodding) that this “controversy” might engulf the film. They had to decide to follow this up with details of a tragic suicide they had no interest in reporting on for four years. Others had to decide to put this “new controversy” on the home page—for three days—of the New York Times and then many other publications. People had to pick through trial transcripts and take things out of context. And on it has gone.
It is NOT a conspiracy theory to think, when something is suddenly made into such a big deal, that powerful forces were either behind it or got behind it. Rather, recognizing all this is part of applying a scientific method in a society in which some social groups have more power than others and are able to use that power, when it suits their purposes, to bring down certain individuals or works of art or scholarship.
WHO and WHAT Is Served by This “Controversy”?
This manufactured “controversy” is already working to turn people away from seeing this film. To impact how the film company and others will decide to promote it—already, the American Film Institute has postponed a major screening. To stop discussion of slavery, but also to stop support of those who rose against this and whether they should be supported—which in the case of Nat Turner is not without controversy, much as the people who rose up recently in urban rebellions in Milwaukee, Baltimore, and elsewhere against police murder are not without controversy. To prevent this from connecting with the tinderbox of anger seething in the ghettoes and prisons.
Frontally attacking this film for its actual content would almost certainly catapult it into even greater prominence. So much better for the oppressors to have a “left” cover—a seemingly “radical” reason—for this film to be buried.
While it seems this was set in motion by very powerful, perhaps ruling-class, forces, others have been taken in and taken it up. Whatever their intents, these people are allowing their legitimate outrage at the widespread culture of rape and patriarchy to be a cover for attacking a film which does not promote rape, but—in fact—makes a powerful contribution to the fight against oppression.
A “Not Guilty” Verdict Matters
Nate Parker was put on trial and found not guilty. This matters!
It should not even be necessary to point out that it matters that Nate Parker was found not guilty. Unfortunately, it is.
Too many people are making the very sloppy—and extremely harmful—argument that, because most rapes go unreported and even fewer result in conviction, it follows that Nate Parker must have gotten away with rape. This is wrong. Statistics that men often get away with rape are NOT the same as evidence that a particular man got away with rape.
Others have argued that a woman's accusations should be believed “because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation.” This is wrong. There are more than a few instances where accusations of rape have been completely fabricated. There have also been many instances where convictions in rape cases have resulted from powerful ruling class interests that have nothing to do with evidence of criminal behavior. And there are times when even sincerely held memories and perceptions of a person turn out not to be true.
In order to sort out the guilt or innocence of a particular person in a particular case, the facts and evidence of that case must be thoroughly examined, sifted through and a verdict rendered. This was done. Nate Parker sat on trial, and when all the evidence was sifted through he was found not guilty of any criminal act. This matters.
An Essential Distinction: Nate Parker Is NOT a Part of the State—Cops Who Get Acquitted for Murder ARE
Some have argued that it is “alarming that Black men have been so quick to suddenly cite the court system” when it is this same court system that lets killer cops walk free.
This argument is also wrong. In thinking this through and writing the following, I have drawn deeply on and paraphrased the article I previously referred to on the Bill Cosby controversy.
Police who murder Black people are part of the apparatus of capitalist state power. The “prosecutor” is also part of the apparatus of this state power. And there has been, over a whole long period of time, a very clear pattern where murders by police are almost always declared “justifiable.” In light of this, there is a sound scientific basis for believing that the regular procedures of the legal system are very unlikely to result in a just outcome. It is correct to believe that any investigation and legal procedures involved will very likely be fundamentally tainted in a way to result in no indictment or, in the very rare cases of indictment, no conviction.
But that is very different from a situation involving an individual—even an individual with considerable wealth and influence—who is not part of the apparatus of state power.
The Truth Must Be Scientifically Established
There are, of course, cases where a thorough review and analysis of the evidence and a trial make it legitimate to conclude that an incorrect verdict was reached. I do not claim to have sifted through all of this in order to draw a scientific conclusion as to the veracity of this verdict. But I have sifted through enough of it to know that those declaring that Nate Parker is “definitely guilty” and that the verdict was wrong are not doing so on anything close to a sound, scientific basis.*
Truth cannot be determined based on who will be served by it, by how it makes you feel or your personal experience, and certainly not by how many people are saying it. Truth must be drawn from evidence. This is important not just for sorting this particular high stakes controversy. This has to do with fundamental questions of what kind of world we want to live in and how we fight to get there.
We need a world without the grotesque division into exploiters and exploited, without the rampant violence against women and degrading patriarchy, without the ongoing bloody terror against and oppression of Black people, and without all the many other crimes of the system of capitalism-imperialism that rules over us. We need a world without this dog-eat-dog system, a world where people have gotten beyond thinking and calculating every social exchange in terms of competing interests of individuals and groups, but instead proceed from the larger interests of all humanity. To get to this world will require an actual revolution—and this requires a scientific approach.
Bob Avakian, the leader of the Revolutionary Communist Party, has written that:
For humanity to advance beyond a state in which “might makes right”—and where things ultimately come down to raw power relations—will require, as a fundamental element in this advance, an approach to understanding things (an epistemology) which recognizes that reality and truth are objective and do not vary in accordance with, nor depend on, different “narratives” and how much “authority” an idea (or “narrative”) may have behind it, or how much power and force can be wielded on behalf of any particular idea or “narrative,” at any given point. (BAsics 4:10)
Trials—and Tyranny—by Media and Twitter Run Counter to Liberation
Again, what we have seen is a media and Twitterverse witch-hunt. Everything Nate Parker has said for nearly two decades—including illegally recorded phone calls—has been pored over. Unable to find anything clearly incriminating, writers have instead insisted that statements expressing patriarchal views (towards gay men or towards women) are “proof” of his guilt. Witness testimony has been taken out of context. Allegations—which are just that, allegations (they never were litigated)—by the woman that she was harassed and stalked are being treated as undisputed fact. Almost entirely ignored in this media frenzy has been the evidence of police law-breaking and intimidation, and prosecution's collusion with this, in the pursuit of locking Parker and Celestin up.**
To quote again from the piece about accusations leveled against Cosby:
“What we see in the way these media operate in situations such as this—a process that hardly involves even a pretense, let alone any real substance, of due process, which in fact such mass media are not designed or constituted to create—is a one-sided 'trial by media' and a 'media tyranny' where, once a person has been targeted, there is no real basis or possibility for them to defend themselves in any meaningful way—where denials are treated as evasions and yet more occasion for going after the person—and all this works, in very harmful ways, to create and reinforce the kind of culture and atmosphere that no decent human being should want.”
People Can Change, the System Cannot
Some have implied that if it's necessary for us all to continue to confront the history of slavery, it is hypocritical for Nate Parker to refuse to “relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope."
This is wrong.
America is a nation. It is founded on genocide of Native Americans, the enslavement of millions of Africans and their descendants, the theft of half of Mexico. It did this through military devastation, lynch mobs, and terror. It has stretched its tentacles of exploitation and militarized murder to every corner of this planet. This is global, it’s systemic and it’s ongoing. America cannot be redeemed, it is the problem. Its true nature must be confronted, and it must be overthrown.
Nate Parker is an individual. He was 19 years old at the time of this incident. While, by all accounts, he behaved in ways that were dehumanizing and degrading to the young woman involved, he did not create the culture of rape and sexual predation which, undoubtedly, shaped his behavior. So, while it is important that Parker—like every other man who has oppressed and degraded women—confront the harm of this behavior, he must also be allowed to grow and to contribute to the world.
Think of the millions of people who have ended up in U.S. prisons not only because of injustice in the criminal system but also because of the way the dominant institutions and culture conditions people to prey upon each other. People who do wrong need to confront this and change. Most of all they need break out of this system's ways of thinking, transform themselves, and become part of putting an end to the system that is the source of the problem. This needs to not only be allowed, but encouraged.
In contrast, revenge—insisting that people can never rise above their lowest point—works against this. It can only contribute to further locking the horrors of this world into place.
Nate Parker Should NOT Be “Put Under a Microscope”
What should be said about Nate Parker? He has maintained his innocence of the charges (which he has legitimate right to do), he has been vindicated in court, and at the same time he seems to have confronted elements of his behavior and values that were reactionary and wrong. He has also indicated that he wants to continue to learn and transform more. He should be allowed to do that and, in fact, he should NOT be put “under a microscope,” to use his words.
People Must Stop Being Played and The Birth of a Nation Must Be Seen
All those who have been caught up in or confused by these attacks should stop allowing themselves to be played by larger forces inimical to the people’s interests. And those who have gone further than that, being whipped up by and getting into revenge, you need to think long and hard about who that serves and what values that reflects and how ugly that really is—and what kind of society you want to live in.
In conclusion, this film must be seen and then debated and judged on its merits. The efforts to prevent this from happening must be defeated. And people need to learn how to see through these destructive attacks.
* I read all the closing arguments, read the main witness testimony people are claiming “seals the guilt” [it doesn’t], read Parker’s and Celestin’s statements read into the trial record, read the testimony of the accuser, read the lawsuit—filed a couple years later—by the Women’s Law Project against Penn State, read all available excerpts of the illegally recorded phone calls made of Nate Parker back then, and read everything I could find about why the conviction of Celestin was thrown out [reportedly because his attorney failed to object to the admission of hearsay evidence and to the admission of evidence obtained through an illegal phone recording] as well as why a retrial did not go forward. As this article was being posted I became aware of this Statement by four former Penn State Alumni who supported Parker then and support him now, which is worth reading, even as I have not been able to verify all that they say. [back]
** According to testimony in the trial transcript, police assisted the accuser in illegally recording a phone call of Nate Parker, a felony which carries a seven-year prison sentence; the same District Attorney who wrote the criminal charges against Parker and Celestin assured the officers who broke the law that they would not be prosecuted; and the judge allowed this illegally procured “evidence” to be admitted to the trial. Detective Chris Weaver, the main officer who investigated the case, admitted in court to threatening a key witness, and other accusations were made against him in court that he intimidated at least one other witness and the defendants (all of whom were Black). [back]
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