There was perhaps no movie more buzzed-about coming out of the Sundance Film Festival in January than Nate Parker's directorial debut, The Birth of A Nation, a retelling of Nat Turner's 19th century rebellion of enslaved people in Virginia.
By the time the festival was over, Nation had netted an unheard-of $17.5 million distribution deal from Fox Searchlight Pictures. It was considered a front-runner for a raft of major awards, and Parker, who had carved out a solid if largely below-the-radar career as an actor, seemed poised to become a filmmaker of serious consequence — one of a handful of black directors able to claim as much.
But as the summer wore on, and as Parker's stature grew, more people began paying attention to his past. During his days as a college wrestler at Penn State, Parker and his friend, Jean Celestin — who shares a writing credit on Nation — were each charged with raping a fellow student.
The Atlantic's Gillian White sketches out the broad, unsettling details of the case:
Court records show that in 1999, Parker and Celestin were accused of having sex with the woman while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and then harassing and intimidating her after she reported them to the college.
... Although Parker was cleared of assault in a court of law, the case endured after 2001, when he was acquitted and Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault; and after 2005, when Celestin won his appeal because the victim couldn't bring herself to testify again. It endured through 2012, when—as both the public and Parker found out this week—the woman killed herself, and it endures now because of Parker and Celestin's movie being widely heralded as a groundbreaking work of historical and racial significance.
Parker initially addressed the fresh attention to the rape trial this summer with language that was seen by many as tone-deaf and self-centered. "Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life," he told Variety. "It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That's that."
Those comments came in for more criticism after the brother of the victim told Variety in August that his sister committed suicide in 2012.
Parker attempted to respond again with more empathy for the victim, but the controversy changed the tenor of the conversation around Nation, a film whose performance and reception Parker had been eager to render in stark, moral terms. "If this film wins awards, but people see the film and behaviors don't change, than we have lost," he told an audience earlier this summer. "This must not be a film that comes and goes."
As many have pointed out, the fact of Parker's acquittal doesn't necessarily absolve him the way he and his supporters might like, especially at a time when black folks in particular are fighting to draw attention to serious flaws in the criminal justice system. Parker's film also includes a graphic gang rape scene, further complicating age-old questions about the ethics of consuming art when the artist is accused of terrible things.
On this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, Karen Grigsby Bates sits down with Michael Arceneaux of Complex, Goldie Taylor of the Daily Beast, and The Atlantic's Gillian White to dig into some questions that often haunt a controversial cultural object.
Is it possible to untether art from the person who created it? What obligations, if any, do filmgoers have to the people who may have been harmed by a filmmaker? And what ramifications might withholding support for Nation have for other black filmmakers struggling to find financing?
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DEMBY: What's good, y'all? I'm Gene Demby, and this is CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm here with my teammate, Karen Grigsby Bates.
KAREN GRIGSBY BATES, HOST:
DEMBY: Hey, KGB. We are talking today about the news I'm sure a lot of you have heard - about actor and director Nate Parker - the rape charges filed against him, a black man, 17 years ago by a young white woman at his college, Penn State University.
BATES: And how people are talking about those charges today as Parker's film, "The Birth Of A Nation," about Nat Turner's slave rebellion, heads to theaters with a whole lot of Oscar buzz.
DEMBY: A lot of Oscar buzz. So in case you're not familiar with the ins and outs of this case, we're just going to lay them out for you really quickly. We can't cover every detail, but we can recommend an exhaustive rundown over at The Daily Beast in an article called "Inside The Nate Parker Rape Case."
BATES: The bare-bones version is this - in 1999 at Penn State, Nate Parker and his wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin, who co-wrote the screenplay for "The Birth Of A Nation," had sex with a college freshmen who told authorities she was unconscious at the time and did not give consent. She said she had been raped. Parker and Celestin were 19. The woman was 18.
DEMBY: So there was a trial. Parker was acquitted on all charges. The fact that the young woman - and we know her as Jane Doe - the fact that she testified to having had consensual sex with Parker previously seemed to play an important role in the jury's decision.
BATES: Jean Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. He appealed. That decision was later overturned. So fast forward to the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, where Parker's "The Birth Of A Nation" scoops up top prizes and an unheard of $17.5 million deal from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
DEMBY: Yeah, it's really hard to overstate the breathless anticipation for this film, which, like "12 Years A Slave" a few years ago, is being looked at as a really important moment in film.
BATES: And as a way for Hollywood to redeem itself from OscarsSoWhite, the ongoing conversation about how the Motion Picture Academy, with a few notable exceptions, almost never gives the top awards to people of color.
DEMBY: And, you know, it's coming out at a time when the issue of rape on college campuses is getting a lot of attention.
BATES: And thanks to social media, it's frankly a lot harder for the Hollywood machine to make unsavory stories about their leading men quietly disappear because they no longer control the narrative.
DEMBY: Especially given the recent revelation that the woman who said Parker and Celestin had raped her committed suicide 12 years later, when she was 30 years old. There's just so much going on in this really sad story.
BATES: Yeah. There's the diversity-in-Hollywood angle. There's the pressure a lot of black folks feel to show up for a film like this no matter what because, comparatively speaking, so few black films get made, especially serious ones, Gene, and most especially ones that take a serious look at race in the United States.
DEMBY: There's also the fact that Jane Doe in this case was white - Parker is black - and what we know about the long history of black men in America losing their lives for so much as speaking to a white woman.
BATES: Clearly we needed some help to unpack all of this, so I talked to a few folks with smart thoughts on this story.
DEMBY: All right, let's hear that conversation.
BATES: Joining us now is Gillian White. She's the senior associate editor at The Atlantic. Also with us is Michael Arceneaux, a columnist for Complex, and Goldie Taylor, editor-at-large of The Daily Beast. Welcome, everybody.
MICHAEL ARCENEAUX: Thank you for having me.
GILLIAN WHITE: Hi.
GOLDIE TAYLOR: Thank you.
BATES: Boy, what a week. I should start out by asking this question, which is that Fox Searchlight has been very selective about allowing screenings of "The Birth Of A Nation." It's been really hard to get to for many of us who've been interested in it. Has anyone actually seen the entire film?
ARCENEAUX: I have not seen it.
WHITE: I have not seen it either.
TAYLOR: Not seen it.
ARCENEAUX: I probably won't be invited now to the screening.
BATES: Probably not, Michael. And just to be clear, we're speaking, in a lot of ways, hypothetically because we - none of us have actually seen the entire film. But many of us know Nat Turner's story and his ill-fated slave rebellion. And now, thanks to the trailer and a flood of media, many of us know Nate Parker's story too. So, Goldie, he says this rape charge was a result of bad behavior in his youth, and he regrets it. He feels he should be able to move forward with his future now. How do you feel about that?
TAYLOR: Well, I think, you know, legally speaking, you know, there was an acquittal for him.
BATES: And that's important to note.
TAYLOR: And that's, I think, incredibly important to note. But as we know, you know, if you're talking about this criminal justice system, which, you know, African-American men have a very, you know, sort of stressed relationship with in the first place, if you don't trust some of its outcomes, I don't know that you can trust any of its outcome - some or all. And so you take only the parts of the outcomes that, you know, sort of benefit you.
You know, I went back, and - you know, our team at The Daily Beast. We pulled it through, read through all the transcripts of phone calls and, you know, witness testimony and went back and interviewed some of, you know, the investigators and, you know, this - the victim, who died, who committed suicide - went back and interviewed her family members.
And what comes out is a very troubled picture, a tragic picture - imagery of a young woman who clearly did not have her faculties about her that evening and a young man that, in a transcription of a tape-recorded phone call, was fully aware that she did not have, you know, control of her faculties that evening, and to the extent that he was even trying to convince her, at one point, that there was no one else in the room.
And you can only try to do that with someone who you believe, you know, does not have the consciousness to contradict you, you know, on those issues. And so will he ever sort of live through this or down with this? I don't think that he will. And frankly, I don't think that he should. I think that there is a cost to pay for this kind of thing, whether it is within the confines of the legal system or some kind of extrajudicial kind of penalty, which is what he's suffering now.
BATES: Gillian, as we just talked about, Nate Parker was acquitted of all charges, so why shouldn't that be the end of his story?
WHITE: You know, I don't think that's the end of the story for a couple of reasons. You know, people ask, why are we talking about this right now? Why hasn't it come up in the past? And it has come up in the past.
But the fact of the matter is Nate Parker wasn't a huge topic of discussion before. He was not helming a huge movie, one of the most expensive movies in Sundance history. And he wasn't positioning himself as a leader of black Hollywood going forward.
So I think that that all merits discussion now. Additionally, you know, as we've already said, he was acquitted. But also, the person who was accused alongside of him and who is his co-writer was found guilty before an appeal allowed him to get off on that charge.
So I think it raises a lot of questions about what exactly happened and what the difference between, you know, being legally innocent and actually innocent are.
BATES: Or legally not guilty and actually innocent.
BATES: As lawyers often point out to me, not guilty doesn't necessarily mean innocent. It means that you were not proven guilty of the charges...
BATES: ...That were brought against you. Michael, there's been a lot of buzz about how good this film is. Should we be judging the work separately from the person who produced it? Can we even do that? Is it possible?
ARCENEAUX: I think for some people, it's possible. But for those of us that elect to not see it, I think that is a valid choice. Like, for me - I actually struggled with supporting the movie monetarily because in 2014, an interview with BET News, which was quickly removed - but I did write about it at the time.
It's kind of, like, one of the last - or the only kind of evidence that it ever took place. He said that he would not play a gay character because he wanted to preserve the black man. And the immediate inference there is that to be gay is to be less than.
So going into this, like, film that was coming, I was already planning to write about this and revisit it because it was something that still haunted me. It was something that was still coming up. And when I read, like, the Deadline and Variety interviews, I didn't know anything, really, about it.
I think someone literally once left a comment on Facebook saying, like, he got charged with rape and was acquitted. But when things go so fast, and I'm working, I didn't think to look into it. But once I read that interview, I looked more into the case.
I just - I made the choice that I can't monetarily support that film. I don't know if I'll ever see the movie, to be honest. It could probably be a great work. There are a lot of, you know, terrible people who do great things creatively.
But I'm at the point now where I don't want to continue what I feel is a bad pattern. But I do understand that some people feel like they still want to see the film. I personally elect not to.
BATES: You know, one of the complicated parts of this story that did not come out immediately, I think - though I hadn't heard it immediately. I heard about it the day after I first started digging through all this stuff.
And again, we need to point out he was acquitted of all charges - is that the Jane Doe, the woman who said she was raped by Parker, was white. Given America's very complicated history around race and sex, Goldie, does that matter? Should it?
TAYLOR: You know, I think as much as we'd like to separate out, race is a construct from this case or cases like it. It really is sort of inextricably tied, especially given the context - the environment in which this happened. Penn State is - and that entire community - is, you know, sort of low on the minority quotient of things.
And him being sort of a celebrated athlete - that at Penn State, as I understand it, you know, Nate Parker was a bit what we call the color of water. And so a celebrated athlete who was not treated as so-called one of them - the acceptable Negro is sort of a piece around that.
And so, you know, it's hard to strip away race. The alleged victim in this case happened to be white. But as I was reading through the information, I did not know her race.
TAYLOR: I am black. And I am a survivor, you know, as is one of the producers, Gabrielle Union, on this film. She is black and also a survivor and very public about that.
BATES: And when you say survivor, you're talking about sexual abuse.
TAYLOR: Yes, sexual abuse.
TAYLOR: And so, you know, reading through this and not knowing that, I connected with her as a survivor. And the words that she heard - I had one time heard them from myself. The words that I heard from him were at one time words that I heard, you know, from the man who assaulted me.
In my case, it was white on black. And so I don't think that, you know, you can pull race entirely out of this. But - and some people would like to interject to say that is why he's being attacked today.
So they're sort of using it as a - sort of a shield around this. Well, I don't think that you can pull it out entirely. I think part of the reason for it being there in such a complex way is how Nate Parker was regarded as a college student and even how, up until recently, he was regarded in Hollywood.
You know, I think we go back and watch sort of the O.J. Simpson, you know, making America sort of piece. O.J. Simpson did not regard himself as a black man until it came time to regard himself as a black man...
BATES: Until he needed black support.
TAYLOR: ...Until he needed black support. And so here we are. We see Nate Parker in need of black support and getting it to some degree because he has used, now, race as his cloak.
BATES: It's very interesting. I've been looking around on social media. And I have seen a lot of sympathy and empathy for Jane Doe. A number of people, I think, initially suggested, oh, you know, black women are going to get behind him.
They're going to get behind Parker because he's black and she's a white woman. And, you know, there they go messing with our guys again. I have not seen that. I've seen women saying this is horrible. It's unacceptable.
We don't care what color she is. This is wrong. And she did not receive justice. Have you all seen similar things? Or have you seen different opinions?
ARCENEAUX: I have, for the most part. But I will say when it comes to the race of the victim - and I think a few months ago, it did feel unfair that Nate Parker - having a white wife. However, we can't ignore the fact that people like him - and particularly in this instance, was modeling himself as, like, a sort of race man, as, like, a spokesperson for black people.
And he has given - he has now for years - talking about what type of imagery he wants to have for black people in Hollywood. He has very much aligned himself with a particular ideology. And he is not...
BATES: Talk about that a little bit.
ARCENEAUX: Well, I mean, even the comment about gay men - to say, like, you want to preserve the black man. You want a specific type of image of what you think black manhood is and, by extension, what black people should look like in the eyes of everyone else.
But when someone kind of positions himself as that - like, love is love. However, if you model yourself as, like, this type of, like, racial representation and you not only have a white wife - you also have a white victim. And you kind of seemed to be colorblind back in college.
I do find it interesting that you are so, quote, unquote, "pro-black." But your idea of what pro-black looks like or what a model black person should be is very rigid. And it doesn't completely align. I think there are a lot of ongoing contradictions with him.
And honestly, he stepped into it by giving these interviews first, which were kind of like supposed to be preventative. But I don't know. The more I look at him, the more I look into him - he doesn't even hold up to the image that he thinks we all should be.
BATES: You thought that Nate Parker is a race man, but can he be one if he's married to a white woman? What did you mean by that?
ARCENEAUX: It's not that you can't be pro-black and be with someone that's not black. When Goldie says he was like - more like the color of water in college, and then his victim is white, I do think there are certain patterns there - that, sometimes, when people alienate themselves from black people - and then want to kind of take up the mantle of being this kind of, like, spokesperson for the race or, like, a symbol of, like, how the race should be.
I think there are a lot of contradictions there - just particularly, like, the casual homophobia and dating. I don't know if he has a pattern of only dating non-black women. But if he does, then that would kind of, like, question some of his stuff.
BATES: Goldie, Gillian?
WHITE: Well, I think the other thing that's interesting when we talk about this and when we talk about the sympathy that people are, you know, expressing for Jane Doe is that those who would say, you know, that this is a white woman who was just trying to take down a black man - you know, I think if that were the case 100 percent, then what we would've seen is a woman who, you know, rode off into the sunset and is now off living her life.
That's - we now know - not the case. Nate Parker didn't know that wasn't the case until last week, either. So I think that, you know, really recast how we think of the person who made these accusations. In one iteration, she could be just a very troubled young woman who was very depressed. And this is where she ended up.
On the other hand, you know, if what she was saying was true, you know, her eventual suicide was precipitated by the actions of a man who, you know, a lot of people now want to put up on a pedestal.
And I think if you believe in accountability for your own actions, then, yeah, that probably brings up some questions about whether or not you should go support this film and the man who created it.
BATES: Goldie, you want to weigh in?
TAYLOR: You know, I think I'm one of those people. And I have heard, you know, strong voices, I think, really from both sides - people who want to financially support the film because they believe that in some way, he's being attacked unfairly.
Or you know, there's that - or the people who want to separate the art from the person, the people who still watch "The Cosby Show" reruns, even though they've put their head around, finally, that he may have assaulted - sexually assaulted - some 60 women.
And so there is that crowd and another group, which we represented here, who probably won't go and see. Michael says he won't go and see this film. He won't put another dollar into Nate Parker's pocket.
I frankly have not been able to make a decision around the film. I no longer, by the way, watch "The Cosby Show." I wrote the story about the legacy - the cover story about the legacy of "The Cosby Show" for Ebony magazine last November, in which, you know, people like Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson said, forever is his legacy and everything that he built destroyed.
Do I feel the same way about Nate Parker? I'm coming to that place where I feel like - I certainly know that as a - also as a producer and as a writer, that I would never work on a project with him because I probably could not sit next to him. And even if he is a completely innocent man, as a survivor, I couldn't do it.
But could I then consume his art? I'm not so sure that I can. And I'm coming closer to that place - where this was something that I was excited to see coming, excited to see a place where someone like Gabrielle Union was an executive producer, who had put her time and talent and investment into this film, wanted to see the fruits of those labors.
Do I punish someone like a Gabrielle Union because I cannot take Nate Parker's art? And that's a very difficult decision for me to make, especially knowing that she, too, like me, is a survivor.
BATES: We're going to take a short break. And then we'll be back with more difficult questions and answers about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker, the filmmaker behind the upcoming release "The Birth Of A Nation." I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. You're listening to CODE SWITCH.
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BATES: This is CODE SWITCH. I'm Karen Grigsby Bates. We're talking about the upcoming film "The Birth Of A Nation" and the rape controversy surrounding filmmaker Nate Parker.
Our guests are writers Gillian White of The Atlantic, Goldie Taylor of The Daily Beast and Michael Arceneaux, a columnist for Complex. We have a short clip of Nate Parker speaking about his film just before it's screened at Sundance in January. Here it is. Let's take a listen.
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NATE PARKER: I made this film for one reason, you know, with the hope of creating change agents. And people can watch this and be affected - that you can watch this film and see that there are systems that were in place that were corrupt and corrupted people. And the legacy of that still lives with us. There are systems in our life right now - in your environments right now. Are you passive?
PARKER: Or are you corrupt and complicit? Because there's no middle ground, right? There is no middle ground. So I just want you, if you are affected and if you are so moved, to ask yourself, are there systems in my life that need attention? - whether it be racial, whether it be gender, sexual. There are a lot of things and a lot of injustices.
BATES: Hmm. Even though many fans were unaware of these allegation back in January when the film screened at Sundance, Nate Parker knew. Michael, you had one of the best, I think, opening lines in your analysis of this whole thing. You asked, how drunk must Nate Parker's publicist be right now? What do you think?
ARCENEAUX: It's probably still happy hour for that person. I...
BATES: Or unhappy hour.
ARCENEAUX: In that clip and in those interviews that kind of stirred all of this, I just find him incredibly self-righteous. I think we would be having a different conversation if he had handled himself better in those interviews.
I mean, he has been acquitted. And that is one inconvenient truth. But another is when he talks about what he did, quote, unquote, "as a mistake in his youth," what exactly are you referring to? Is it not understanding consent?
Because when you look at those transcripts and you read more about the case and then you compare that with the interviews he gave, there is a level of selfishness there that is still present in him. He tried to follow it up after the fact on Facebook. But, I mean, even when he talked about the case, he only talked about in the context of his pain and what happened to him.
He didn't have any regard for the other person in that situation. And that phone conversation he had with Jane Doe - he knew what he was doing. It was manipulative. And in many ways, I think the intent of those interviews was clearly the Hollywood system at work trying to stop something before it happened.
And I think he's just not as good at manipulation as he found himself to be in the past. I just wish that he had spoken more honestly and more selflessly and not taken upon himself to - like, even in that clip, you are - again, like, you're not the man that you think everyone else should be.
You - and then the one thing I'll also put in the piece - if there's anything that black and white, Latino, Asian men - all men can agree on, it's sadly the lack of respect for women's autonomy and control of their bodies. And this just reminds me of that.
And when I think about him or people like Bill Cosby, I just think at a certain point - we're all creatives. We understand the importance of symbolism. But to what extent do we keep allowing these type of characters get away with things in the name of symbolism? Like, it's a flawed symbol to begin with.
BATES: Some people say even if you don't like it, you have to support this because if you don't, then Hollywood won't make any more. What do you guys think of that?
TAYLOR: I know 50 Nate Parkers who are waiting in line for their opportunity - screenwriters, producers, you know, groups, you know, from every level of filmmaking, beginning to end. There are at least 50 to 100 standing in line behind him who are as talented, who are as brilliant, who are as compelling of actors, producers, directors.
And so he isn't the only person that could be invited into the room. But I think there was - and Michael and I were, you know, sort of at the front edge of this last year when there was an #OscarsSoWhite hashtag that a Twitter friend of ours, Reign of April, launched.
And that hashtag caught fire for any number of reasons but most of it for the truth of Hollywood. What was being bought, what was being celebrated, what was being celebrated at year's end tended to be, you know, more homogeneous in its nature. And so on the back of that, you saw diversity of the academy.
And you saw many more studios looking for many more, quote, unquote, "black projects" that weren't necessarily urban projects, as they called them - the urban market. You know, they weren't looking for, you know, "Boyz N The Hood" again, you know, because there was a resurgence of that along the '90s.
But there is - they were looking for black TV, black film and getting, really, what they could put their hands on. Thus, this film came to be screened at Sundance in the height of that. And that it came away with arguably the largest prize out of it is now something that Hollywood cannot back itself away from.
To back yourself away from Nate Parker means that you're backing yourself away from black Hollywood. He's come to, you know, sort of exemplify it in so many ways. And so I think they're sort of locked into supporting him - you know, sort of a damned if you do, damned if you don't kind of situation.
But I agree with Michael, you know, when he said earlier on that those interviews did him absolutely no favors. We would be having, starkly, a different conversation today if he had at least given some - paid some homage to her pain, to what she went through, you know, as a victim.
If he had even known that she had committed suicide - he is so disassociated from her that he did not even know that she was deceased and how her life, you know, so tragically ended.
If he had been able to have that conversation, to divorce himself from his own so-called pain to get into hers, we wouldn't be here today. And Hollywood wouldn't find itself in such a sort of locked-in position.
BATES: So Goldie, you're not worried. You feel like, you know, if Nate goes away, there will be other people who will be able to tell their stories and next.
TAYLOR: You know, there probably have been instances that I would have been fearful that if you had an African-American at the table with something this important - that if it went away, there wouldn't be other opportunities.
But frankly, there are. You know, that's why there's Eva. That's why there's Gabrielle. That's why there's Oprah Winfrey. That's why there is Samuel Jackson. You look down the list of people. You know, you even have, you know, LeBron James investing in film...
TAYLOR: ...In a significant way. And so not only are there going to be even more opportunities and so many talented people in line, we're now making our own opportunities and funding our own projects.
And so Nate Parker is not alone. And if, you know, by some stretch - that this film does OK - not OK. Whether he has another project tomorrow or not, there are going to be other projects and other talents, other breeds to come to growth.
ARCENEAUX: It's also a lie that we're fed constantly, this idea if we support this one thing - that a lot of things will - like, have we not proven time and time again that black people can be profitable and black stories can be told and make money and crossover?
Like, we know that at this point. It's Hollywood that refuses to kind of, like, own that and really - and even with Nate Parker, didn't he fund this movie himself and then have it made? And then Hollywood came to him.
I think there are other people in - LeBron James is actually a really good example because "Survivor's Remorse" is such a good, progressive, really thoughtful black comedy that you typically don't find on television, which you hadn't in years.
Like, there are other people. Like, this idea of - this one movie doesn't do well - then it'll all go away - is rooted in a fallacy.
WHITE: Right. I hundred-percent agree with that. There is no shortage of black actors, directors, writers, thinkers who could do amazing things if given the chance.
I think this narrative that we need to rally behind whoever is the person of the moment, who white Hollywood has accepted and said, here's the person who's going to tell your story, is not only problematic.
It's really dangerous 'cause what that does to us is says, hey, even if you have reservations about this person, even if you think they might have done some really horrific, ugly things, they're all you have. And that is just not true. And that puts us in an awful position.
BATES: Michael, you mentioned "Survivor's Remorse." Give us a quick synopsis of it. What is it? Who's backing it?
ARCENEAUX: "Survivor's Remorse" is executive produced by LeBron James. It airs on Starz, and it basically chronicles a newly-signed NBA superstar with his black family and transition. It's a very basic premise. But the show takes on classism, colorism. There's a gay character in his sister, who is, like, this very dynamic character that you don't typically see from just in general like how gay are covered, particularly black lesbians. Tichina Arnold is a comedic genius. Like, she adds so much layers to every character she plays. Like, there's so many things happening on that one little show, and I think more people should watch it. I'm not being paid to say this.
BATES: Well, this is good. Well, you're a critic, so you - if you like it, I'm going to go find it. Well, you know, Goldie was talking just a minute about all of these people who are in the position to create things, black projects in Hollywood. And it's kind of interesting that a lot of them have been Parker supporters. So you've got Spike Lee and Ava DuVernay and Denzel Washington and Oprah Winfrey, Gina Prince-Bythewood and none of them have stepped forward to say come on, it was a long time ago. It was stupid. He needed to accept responsibility for what he did. Can we not let him move on? This is an incredible project.
Any idea, Goldie, why the silence - why the silence - I should say the official silence. I'm sure people are having conversations, you know, over drinks...
TAYLOR: Oh, yes.
BATES: ...In places I'll never get into.
TAYLOR: Oh, yes. Oh, yes. My email box is full. So yeah, there is no public conversation happening because there still is a dominating culture in Hollywood that is driven by studio bosses and such. And there is such a thing still as blacklisting, no matter how powerful you happen to be or how much, you know, wealth, you know, you have amassed or the - or your body of work.
And so that is - and distribution is sort of key. Even though you fund your own project, you're still looking for distribution. And those gateways are just difficult to come by. Independent distribution just doesn't happen. Independent creation does.
But there is a very muscular conversation happening today in black Hollywood among directors, producers and actresses and screenwriters around what do we do about this. And to the person, I have not heard a one speak up to say I believe him. I haven't heard a one speak up to say I want to work with him.
But at the same time, they're not publicly saying, you know, that we're going to condemn him. So there is a circling of the wagons, don't-air-our-dirty-laundry culture in the black community that we are less prone to step out and call another black creative wrong on their spot, to blow up their spot, as to say, because there are - whether we were righteous or not in that, there is a cost to pay when we get home. You know, I did something similar recently where I stepped out and blew up somebody's spot who happened to be another African. I paid for that. And that's just, you know, sort of how the world works culturally for us.
BATES: So you're saying this is self-preservation, basically...
TAYLOR: This is self - this is self-preservation.
BATES: Let me ask about the double standard. Michael, there are some people who say that Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, other white filmmakers who've been accused of sexual assault don't get the same level of scrutiny. What do you make of that argument?
ARCENEAUX: I mention that in the piece. Well, first of all, I think it's a different time. I think if a lot of what happened then happened now, it would be a different story. I would never deny white privilege and all those things. But I also mentioned in the piece at what point are we to be better than those who came before us? For me, I don't want to be that person. I want to be better than those people that let the Woody Allen's and the Roman Polanski's get away. Like, if I were writing then, I would've said something then. But it's also a different time now.
I think it's much harder for people in general to get away with these types of things. And I think it's to be celebrated.
BATES: Social media, that sort of thing.
ARCENEAUX: Yeah, social media is driving this - not necessarily even, like, writers in general. It was like - again, like a lot of stuff that I had written in the past, people brought that up. I didn't.
WHITE: Yeah, I totally agree with that. It's like today you can go on the Internet, you can find public court records. You can find out stuff that you didn't know before. You can reach out to the family of Jane Doe. I think that that entire argument of had he been a white man people wouldn't be bringing it up this much - I think that's an awful argument because is the argument there that you're making that you think that he's innocent and that this is entirely a racial issue, or are you saying that you still have doubts about what happened that night, but if he were white no one would be saying anything? I think that's a horrific argument to be making.
And as Michael said, we want to be better. We don't want to be a group of people who's allowing people to get away with these kinds of crimes.
ARCENEAUX: Black people don't need a Roman Polanski...
ARCENEAUX: ...Or Woody Allen. We don't need contemporary black examples of those type of people. We don't need them.
BATES: I want to close it out by asking all three of you if you were the beleaguered publicist for Mr. Parker, at this point, what advice would you have for him? How does he even go forward from now. Everybody's thinking I don't want a part of this mess.
ARCENEAUX: I don't - I don't know if he could fix this at this point. I mean, maybe an interview in which he kind of owns up to more things and show real compassion could help. But I don't - I think he's already shown his hand because when he tried to write that Facebook post after he found out the accuser committed suicide, there was softer tones there. There was phrasing that kind of tried to denote like actual empathy and regret. But it came after we already - he realized people were already pissed at him and that a lot of, like, the damage that he's done is permanent. Like, he sees his Oscar campaign in flames. So I don't know at this point if there's anything he could do. I mean, it wouldn't hurt to maybe try again. But I think he showed his hand. And...
BATES: Gillian, what do you think?
WHITE: I kind of agree with that. I think the whole issue is the framing from beginning to end from when this campaign of, hey, a thing happened 17 years ago and it was a super painful time for me started all the way through to that Facebook post, where he made some vague allusions to doing some morally wrong things. I think there are just too many questions in people's minds. He's made it too much about himself.
He was so clearly disconnected from the fate of this woman that I just don't really know how he as a person comes back from this with people who feel like he has done something wrong. Yeah, I don't know that there's anything that he could say to the people who already, you know, have kind of decided that they're not with him anymore.
TAYLOR: I have to agree with that. I don't know that his box office sales are going to do very well. I don't know that he's in any contention for the Oscars race at this point. I don't know that any major studio can pick him up for an overall deal of any kind at this point. Will he create again? Of course. Creators create. It's, you know, it's who he is, and so will he write? Yes. He'll find a role somewhere. Someone will hire him to do something.
But this is a reset, I think, for him and for his life and not undeservedly so given what the initial statements sounded like in what we've talked about is his disconnection from the victim and even disconnecting from the incident itself it appears. I've moved on. Let everybody else move on. I've got a beautiful wife and beautiful children and I have four sisters and a mother and I know all this because Nate Parker told us all of this without once talking about, you know, the impact it could have had, you know, on his alleged victim.
And so I don't know if Nate Parker is even today sorry for what happened that evening. I haven't heard that from him. I've heard that he is sorry that it is impacting him in this way. And so I agree with Michael and Gillian that this is - he's done irreparable damage to his brand. And this is - if anything, he'll have a reset as a creative.
BATES: Goldie Taylor is editor at large of The Daily Beast. Michael Arceneaux is a contributing columnist for Complex and Gillian White is the senior associate editor at The Atlantic. That was a tough conversation. Thanks to you all.
ARCENEAUX: Thank you.
TAYLOR: Thank you.
BATES: And now, joining me again is my CODE SWITCH colleague Gene Demby. Gene, you heard all that. What'd you think?
DEMBY: Yeah, that was a fascinating conversation. You know, one of the things that's really fascinating about this story, this very disturbing story, is how many things are layered on top of each other. There are the actual rape charges against Nate Parker, but there's also this conversation about, like, the media industry that is - has to sit on top of that and that is hard to sort of disentangle from that conversation.
And we already struggle to talk about cases of sexual assault and rape when we're talking about people who are not famous, right, and who do not have this, like, media apparatus behind them. And so, like, it's hard to talk about this without also getting pulled into this unseemly conversation about, like, whether or not this gets nominated for an Oscar or some other big award or the Golden Globes and, like, whether those allegations hurt his Oscar chances. You know what I mean? It's just - there's all this gross stuff...
BATES: Yeah, well, you heard - you probably saw Roxanne Gay's piece in The New York Times this past weekend where she said, you know, I cannot separate the artist from the art. And as a survivor of sexual assault, she said I'm not going to even try. You know, I'm not going to see this. I'm not going to hear anything more about it. Just forget it. I am done with this man.
Some people will say that's unfair. Some people will say, well, this is him now. This was him then. But I think the release of the transcripts, which were public record, and the conversation that he's chosen to have since then and the women in this...
DEMBY: Or not have.
BATES: Or not have - you know, this whole business of, you know, this happened 17 years ago. He just about said everything except give me a break. You know, I'm really still in pain about it. I had hoped it would go on. It's like, yeah, it's not about you, son. You know, it's about this woman who is no longer here.
And Goldie and Gillian were right, that you did not hear at any point in these follow-ups I am just - I'm so sorry that this happened. I'm sorry I was part of it. You know, no, it's - not in the way that you guys think and remember I was acquitted. But that still doesn't stop me from feeling terrible that this woman took her life.
BATES: And I hope what happened, what allegedly happened back when we were younger, wasn't the catalyst for this, but I don't know.
DEMBY: You know, listening to you guys talk made me think of this GQ profile of R. Kelly. This was a few months back, but the premise of the profile was how do people make sense - how do people hold in their head these horrible, horrible accusations against R. Kelly and the fact that they still, you know, bang with his music? And the writer of the piece sort of came to the conclusion that actually people don't hold in their heads those two things. They don't try to, right? They just say I like this music and so I don't - I pay no attention. We often try to have this conversation about separating the art from the artist. But in reality, in a lot of cases, we just don't do it. We just decide not to, you know?
BATES: Because it is complicated. It's hard to sit down and unravel all of that. But I think the typical knee jerk response is, well, it's a great song or it's a great piece of art or it's a great film, and it's not about me. It's about the work.
DEMBY: Right, absolutely.
BATES: But the work doesn't get created in a vacuum.
BATES: There are things that affect the work whether we want to admit to them or not. And so, you know, I've - I guess I fall down more on the Roxanne Gay side of things. I mean, I have this argument...
DEMBY: So you won't be seeing it.
BATES: I don't know. I have this argument with my husband a lot about Picasso. He's a big Picasso fan, and I said, you know, I take points off because he was horrible to his wives. He traumatized his children. And to me, that makes him seem a less great man. And Bruce will say, well, is the art any less great? And I have to say, I can look at it and appreciate it, but I don't have the passion for it I would have had had I not known how terrible he was to his family.
BATES: And if I had a choice, I guess I'd rather him be a smidge less great on canvas with his sculptures if he - if that meant that he paid some attention to the people who loved him, who basically gave up their lives for him.
DEMBY: That's heavy.
DEMBY: But, yeah, I mean, we're talking about a movie, in this case, that is about, you know...
BATES: Slavery and resistance to slavery.
DEMBY: Slavery and - we're talking about slavery and rape and race. This is all heavy stuff.
BATES: Well, when it all falls together - and I - you know, I feel for the people who say, look, this is one of the few movies that have come out that shows that black people were not just sitting around waiting to be freed. They had agency. They took things into their own hands. At time, they were even violent, saying this is how we feel about being held against our will, being worked with no compensation, being separated and being raped. That's important for black people to see. It's important for America to see to sort of rewrite part of the docile submissive slave narrative that is often fed to us through period films and through major media. And so if this film doesn't do well, people don't learn about that. But my thought is if this film does well, at what price?
BATES: You know, the Jane Doe can't answer. She's not here anymore.
DEMBY: All right. Well, we're going to leave it there for this week. I'm Gene Demby here with the great and good Karen Grigsby Bates. Thank you, KGB.
BATES: Thank you, Gene.
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DEMBY: Thank you all for listening and the CODE SWITCH podcast is edited by Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. Our producer, as always, is Walter Ray Watson. The rest of the CODE SWITCH team is Adrian Florido, Kat Chow and my co-host, Shereen Marisol Meraji. Our news assistant is Leah Donnella.
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BATES: You can find us on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. And email us any time at firstname.lastname@example.org. We really do want to hear from you.
DEMBY: Original music this week by Ramtin Arablouei.
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DEMBY: All right, y'all, be easy. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.