What happens when an artist whose work you love and respect turns out to have done (allegedly or not) something morally repugnant? The question of separating art from its creator is a contentious, age-old one that recently resurfaced with the hype surrounding actor Nate Parker's highly-anticipated film Birth of a Nation.
Premiered to critical acclaim at Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, Birth of a Nation is Parker's directorial debut. The film's buzz led to intense scrutiny of rape allegations against Parker and Jean Celesti (a co-writer for the movie) from 1999 during their time at Pennsylvania State University. In 2012, the alleged victim committed suicide. Variety reported that according to court documents, the woman testified that she had attempted suicide twice following the rape; her brother said she suffered from depression, too.
For many people, particularly those who have been the victims of sexual violence themselves, the accusations mark a line crossed. Feminist author Roxane Gay wrote an op-ed in which she said she could not separate the art from the artist.
For actress Gabrielle Union, who in Birth of a Nation plays a character who was brutally raped, the allegations were a bitter pill to swallow.
In an op-ed for The Los Angeles Times, Union addressed the controversy, referencing her own rape at gunpoint 24 years ago.
"Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence," Union wrote.
"Since Nate Parker's story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor."
But as significant as the film is, Union wrote:
I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date's consent? It's very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said "no," silence certainly does not equal "yes." Although it's often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a "no" as a "yes" is problematic at least, criminal at worst.
Union stressed in her op-ed the importance in educating young people about consent, something she says she and her husband Dwayne Wade make an effort to teach their sons.
The actress does not discourage audiences from going to see the film, calling it instead an "opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize."
Think of all the victims who, like my character, are silent. The girls sitting in their dorm rooms, scared to speak up. The wife who is abused by her husband. The woman attacked in an alley. The child molested. Countless souls broken from trans-violence attacks. It is for you that I am speaking. This is real. We are real. Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine. And if the stories around this film do not prove and emphasize this, then I don't know what does.
Cover image via lev radin / Shutterstock.com.