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Parker’s ‘Birth of a Nation’ reignites art vs. artist debate

By Sandy Cohen Associated Press

LOS ANGELES – As a rape survivor, actress AnnaLynne McCord has strong feelings about movies made by people accused of sexual assault.

“I probably shouldn’t say this, but I can’t watch Woody Allen films,” she said. “And (Roman) Polanski, also a big guy? No, I’m sorry, not being someone who was raped. I can’t, I just can’t. I have no judgment toward those people. I don’t know their stories. But I will not watch their films.”

The question of how to separate the art from the artist, particularly when the artist has been accused of a sex crime, is a familiar one in Hollywood. Consider Polanski, who left the country after pleading guilty to having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. Consider Allen, who was accused (but never charged) of molesting the young daughter of ex-partner Mia Farrow. Consider Bill Cosby, accused of sexual assault by dozens of women.

And then there’s singer R. Kelly, who continued to have platinum success and multiple hits despite child pornography charges against him; he was acquitted in a criminal trial years ago, but allegations of improprieties with teenage girls have dogged the singer. Still, he’s got a huge fan base, and is currently on tour.

Friday’s release of “The Birth of a Nation,” which has resurrected details of a 17-year-old rape case against its writer, director, producer and star, Nate Parker, raises the dilemma again: How to reconcile potentially worthy art – in this case, the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner – with a creator who may be profoundly flawed?

Parker was acquitted of the charges. His “Nation” collaborator and then-college roommate, Jean Celestin, was initially convicted of sexual assault in the case, but the charge was overturned when the accuser didn’t testify for a retrial. She killed herself in 2012.

Actress Ellen Barkin shared her concerns about “The Birth of a Nation” in a series of tweets Tuesday. She drew comparisons to Elia Kazan, whom she said she would have worked with given the chance, despite his congressional testimony that put many of his colleagues on the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s, thus ending their careers.

Barkin said she grapples with how to weigh Parker’s past – and his current lack of apology – against the implicit value of his work.

“Having said all this, it doesn’t mean I won’t see his film or he shouldn’t have made his film for that reason,” she wrote.

Hollywood stars, like everyday moviegoers, vary widely in how and where they draw the line between the art and the artist.

Some people see art as a reflection of the person who made it, while others consider the artist more of a conduit for the work, said media scholar Nsenga Burton.

She and other experts note some routine rationalizations people use to navigate this tricky territory.

There’s “moral licensing,” said UCLA sociologist Gabriel Rossman, wherein the artist makes such socially conscious work that it becomes easier to forgive his wrongdoings.

How one chooses to frame their understanding of each case matters, too, Rossman said. It may be more palatable to think of Polanski as having had sex with a minor, for example, than to consider that he drugged and sodomized a 13-year-old. Similarly, it may be more comfortable to focus on Parker’s acquittal than allegations that the woman was unconscious and that Parker later harassed her.

For actor Chadwick Boseman, pending criminal cases, such as Cosby’s, are harder to deal with than settled ones, but his response hinges on the work itself.

“It depends on how good the filmmaker is,” Boseman said. “If the film is amazing, then they have the ability to suspend our belief. That’s part of theater and what storytelling is.”

A conviction is what makes the difference for David Schwimmer, a longtime activist with the Rape Foundation.

“It’s very difficult for me to support artists who have been found guilty of that kind of crime,” he said. He notes that Allen, however, “specifically has not been found guilty in a court of law.”

Those trying to justify sexual violence may shift more blame to the victim and assume there must have been some misunderstanding, said Bryana French, a psychology professor at University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota.

“There’s the common belief that rapists are scary men who jump out of a bush and attack you with a knife,” she said. “They couldn’t possibly be these rich, famous, attractive men who can have any woman they want.”

Race factors into our perceptions, too, she said.

“People are much more aware, with Black Lives Matter and the police shootings, of race and racism, so I’m thinking that the audience who would go to a movie like ‘The Birth of a Nation’ would be those who are interested in the racial history of the U.S.,” French said. “That’s also hard to navigate: How do I not support this black man when black men are getting murdered at ridiculous rates?”

To support any Hollywood project is to overlook the industry’s historical mistreatment of women and people of color, said Burton, chair of the Communications and Media Studies Department at Goucher College in Baltimore.

“Nate Parker’s prior acts do not diminish the work of art that he has created, but it definitely taints it,” she said. “For me, even though I’m a womanist/feminist, and I think what he did was deplorable, I have to see the film, because I need to see what he’s done. I have to see the work of art …

“If I was looking at Hollywood for the producers and creators to be pristine … I wouldn’t be able to watch anything.”

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