Wilson Morales: Nate Parker Outrage Doesn't Pass the Smell Test (Guest Column)

Nate Parker and inset of Wilson Morales- BlackFilm.com-Getty-Publicity-H 2017
Aaron Davidson/WireImage; BlackFilm.com

As I read the recent coverage of Nate Parker and his legal troubles from 17 years ago, for which he was exonerated, I asked myself, “Why is this story coming out now?”

Parker's directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, was first shown at Sundance (in January) and won the top two prizes. Bought by Fox Searchlight for a record amount, it’s been gearing up for its Oscar campaign, starting with the Toronto International Film Festival next month. Parker has given countless interviews to online sites, print publications and TV outlets. He and his Birth cast have appeared at several other festivals, showing clips and discussing the film. And yet not one writer, producer, editor or moderator brought up the subject of his rape trial until last week.

Why now?

Parker has been in the business for over a decade and has nearly 20 films to his credit, including three lead roles (Red Tails, Beyond the Lights and now The Birth of a Nation). No one asked him about his past before now, even though it’s been on his Wikipedia page for a long time. He never tried to have it removed or shied away from it.

Both Penske publications that ran the story last Friday, Deadline and Variety, stated that Parker wanted to address that period of his life. Was he asked about it or did he bring it up on his own? I wondered if the reporters had seen the film and a rape scene in it and felt that opened the door regarding his personal life. Or could it be that the studio wanted to get ahead of the story? Oscar films, or films gaining Oscar buzz, always come under the microscope. That’s expected. It’s politics. Usually, though, skeptics only come out swinging after the film has been released, not before.

The timing of this controversy seems questionable. It seems to me that whenever there’s a film of importance that centers around the history and, specifically, the mistreatment of African-Americans, the film and even those behind the camera are called into question. It happened with The Hurricane, which starred Denzel Washington; Ava DuVernay’s Selma; and Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave, the only one that actually prevailed despite smear attempts, winning the best picture Oscar.

To be fair, other Oscar contenders also are heavily scrutinized, such as A Beautiful Mind, Lincoln, Zero Dark Thirty and The Wolf of Wall Street — but they came under fire after moviegoers already had the opportunity to see the film.

We’re still weeks away from the theatrical release of The Birth of a Nation, which is what Academy members supposedly will be judging when they fill out their Oscar ballots. There is little debate among those who already have seen it that it's special — it has a 96 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes. I haven’t seen it yet myself, but plan to do so in Toronto. And, just like every other film I see, I will judge The Birth of a Nation by what’s on the screen.

Wilson Morales is the editor-in-chief of BlackFilm.com and a past vice president of the African American Film Critics Association.