Don't give Nate Parker an Academy Award

Parker was a student at Penn State when he was acquitted of raping a fellow student with whom he had previously had consensual intercourse. On the night in question, though, the student claimed she did not, indeed could not, consent to sex with Parker and his roommate (and co-author of the script for The Birth of a Nation) Jean Celestin, because she was incapacitated by alcohol at the time. Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault, but the conviction was vacated on appeal. The woman involved in the alleged attack, it was reported this week, later committed suicide.

Parker, in a carefully worded defense he posted on Facebook, brought up the point that the incident occurred a long time ago, in 1999; that he was a teenager at the time; that he was contrite about the role he played; that he was now a committed husband and father of five; that the encounter was consensual; and that he was acquitted. Yet a transcript of a phone conversation between Parker and the woman that surfaced this week makes it clear that, whatever Parker’s status today, and whatever strengths his claims may have had as a matter of law, he is profoundly morally stained by what he did. (“I was so out of it,” the woman stated. “My whole body was numb.”) If I had been a juror in Parker’s case, I would have voted to acquit — it isn’t clear beyond a reasonable doubt that Parker was guilty — but if I were an Oscar voter today I would not vote for The Birth of a Nation, though it is a powerful work.

A work of art may be judged solely on its merits, but Oscars go to people, not objects, and Parker is morally undeserving of so prestigious an award. When The Birth of a Nation premiered to rapturous reviews at January’s Sundance Film Festival, the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences was wringing its hands in guilty despair at the widespread (and completely unjustified) campaign to shame it for including no black actors among its 20 nominees. Parker’s film seemed to guarantee that the 2017 Oscars would suffer from no such “blackout.” It’s a strong film, it’s serious, it’s based on historical fact (the Nat Turner–led slave rebellion of 1831), it’s political, it’s angry, and it’s left-wing, all of which would make it a leading contender even excluding the Academy’s terror of being called racist for ignoring black artists.

Yet the film is, in my opinion, not quite good enough to win Best Picture or any other Oscars, and Parker’s role in the alleged rape will probably exterminate the movie’s chances of winning, though I believe it will still get several nominations.