The Current

Birth of a Nation and Nate Parker: Can art and artist be separated?

Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation is one of the most talked about movies at this year's Toronto International Film Festival. For many, Parker's history involving a sexual assault charge raises complex questions about whether to even see the film.
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in a scene from The Birth of a Naiton, in theatres on Oct. 7, 2016. (Fox Searchlight Pictures via AP)
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The Birth of a Nation is one of the most anticipated upcoming movies this year,  and one of the most buzzed about titles at this year's Toronto International Film Festival.  The film delves into an important chapter of American history — Nat Turner and the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia.

But the combination of Nate Parker's own troubled past involving a sexual assault charge and acquittal, coupled with the almost-ignored past that The Birth Of A Nation brings to the big screen has made the question of whether to go see the film very complicated.

Writer and editor Morgan Jerkins tells The Current's Anna Maria Tremonti that initially she was excited to see the film because she says "it was a narrative that had no white saviour… clearly a rebellion."

"A film about black liberation, it's perfect timing with the Oscar So White movement as well as the Black Lives Matter movement that spread across the world," says Jerkins.

Her excitement turned to disappointment when she became aware of Parker's past and suddenly seeing the film became more complex.

"When it comes to something about rape, when we're talking about the subjugation of women's bodies and yet this man is promoting a film that's talking about liberation of all black people, it's like… how do you extricate the art from the artist?"

Jerkins says the issue is even more layered because in this case it involves a black woman.

"It's almost as if we have to choose between our blackness or our womanhood because if we talk about this alleged rape and what it demonstrates about toxic masculinity, as Gabrielle Union put it, a lot of black men will say 'well, no, this is, this is a conspiracy, you're trying to tear the black man down' and then that just further silences black women. It puts us in a bind."

A criminal charge that Nate Parker faced 17 years ago has followed him to the Toronto International Film Festival 2:38

David Dennis Jr., an adjunct journalism professor at Morehouse, says his students want to see the film because they feel it's their responsibility to see the movie and to engage in a conversation.

"[My students] are interested in what the toll this takes on black women, you know black women whenever there's a liberation movement anywhere really, it seems like they're a black women that's either victimized, ignored left behind, and they just kind of have to suck it up."

Dennis Jr. tells Tremonti The Birth of a Nation brings to light a necessary discussion to bring real change.

"It's not convenient for us to talk about, it's not pleasant for us to talk about, but that's how you break through."

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this web post.

This segment was produced by The Current's Pacinthe Mattar and Willow Smith.