In fact it’s our problem. Nate Parker is the young black actor and director whose first film, Birth of a Nation (no, not that one, the new one), received standing ovations at the Sundance Festival. Then came the puzzling news that Parker was charged with rape some ten years ago, a charge for which he was acquitted. Nota bene: a charge for which he was acquitted. The next thing we hear, curtesy of a media hallucinating the smell of blood, is a question. Should we now go to see his apparently masterful film? Oddly enough, most answers aired, on the radio at least (the blind have little use for TV), were negative. This ancient acquittal for rape evidently changes the way you view a film. One wonders how. Next the conversation bloats into the knotty problem of whether or not it is possible to separate the artist from the art – a problem settled centuries ago by more astute men and women. Considering the less than flawless characters of artists going back to the Deluge – and spiritual leaders for that matter, as well as many luminaries – we would halve the accepted classics in any field, if work was judged by moral probity. This drooling non-debate was then dragged into the Toronto International Film Festival, where media rose to emphasise its limitless capacity for changing the conversation to suit its own despicably venal purposes. Mr. Parker was there to talk about his film – it was a film festival after all. Journalists, however, were now there to interview him about the decade-old rape charge. One imagined that even the most sadistic hack would see fit to mention that Parker had been acquitted – in the interests of accuracy and honesty, if for no other reason. But none did (again, on radio, the news and current affairs shows). To complete this disgraceful display of moral turpitude, some journalists had the astounding gall to complain that PR people cut their interviews short when they persisted with asking the same questions about something that a court decided never happened ten years ago. Of course, then this became the story – oh, how wronged we poisonous scriveners and pompous yackers are! What’s he hiding? Why won’t he answer the questions? The questions, remember, regarding what did not happen.
Now, it is no mean feat for a young Afro-American to realise any dream, let alone act in, co-write and direct a major film. Parker was rightly hailed as a rising star, someone to watch — until the media decided otherwise. We much prefer to see you go down in flames, idol – it makes for a better story, our story, not yours. Our slanders and yentas’ gossip, really. The nattering classes have not done with it yet. It is added to a stack of similar travesties that raise one big question. It would seem that you are not innocent until proven guilty – a foundation or legal system — if charged with a sexual assault, or even alleged to have been involved in one – rumoured too. Leaving the nature of rape cases aside – these are really legal issues and questions of impartial justice – there are three notable cases in which the courts of media have tried, judged and convicted men either later proven innocent in court or not even charged with a crime. Careers are being ruined by the smear machine, and allegedly serious people continue with the wretchedly stupid issue of separating art from artist. Jian Qomeshi: acquitted, career down in flames. Woody Allen: not charged with anything, no victim-complaint, long and laudable career poisoned by rumours and lies. And, most poignant of all, Nate Parker: acquitted, dawn of a promising career turned to sunset by media malfeasance, spite, envy, and the pious self-righteousness of people who have achieved nothing but bile and too much time on their busy hands. As said, the rape-on-trial issue is a separate debate. This is about the persecution of innocent people. It is also about the difference between a person and their work. If you choose not to see or read a film or book because you have been told to disapprove of the artist’s character – after all, you don’t actually know anything independently – then you will presumably refuse to accept one of the principles of modern physics because its discoverer had a predilection for under-age hirls (no, I won’t say whom; it will only fan old embers into flickering life). There is no difference. Brilliant work is brilliant work; morally reprehensible behaviour is what it is. Dostoyevsky is one of my favourite writers; he also raped an eleven-year-old girl – an act I consider high on the charts of evil. But it does not affect the genius and mastery of his work. Such a list will be interminable. We must accept that the people having these ludicrous yacks are not the people who appreciate, understand or even like art in the first place. Which begs the question of why they are given a media pulpit to bore and bully us with. Turn it all off and read a good book.
Paul William Roberts