written by Valerie Morales
A few years ago at the Sundance Film Festival, audiences were awed by The Birth Of A Nation which captured the coveted Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize. Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased the rights and The Birth Of A Nation was scheduled to open in theaters the first week of October (2016) with a heady amount of Oscar buzz.
The producer, director, and co-writer Nate Parker brimmed with optimism. Two years earlier, Parker was the sexy romantic in the love story Beyond the Lights, playing a cop in love with a Beyonce like superstar. The Birth Of A Nation though wasn’t a formulaic lighthearted chick flick. It was a resistance film.
This was the gripping story. Nat Turner, a slave preacher, led a rebellion in 1831. The rebels who conspired with him were thirsty, angry, and ruthless; they murdered up to 60 white men, women, and children, a response to their forced captivity. In reaction, white militias organized and murdered 120 blacks, most of whom weren’t involved in the revolt. After capture, Turner was tried and convicted and sentenced to death; 18 other slaves were hung. A few were sold out of state.
In the film, Nate Parker cast himself as Nat Turner, a man of violence, which segued with his own personal history. When he was a student at Penn State, Nate Parker was accused of rape and acquitted at trial. As journalists began to press Turner about the 1999 incident, often bringing up the alleged victim’s suicide, (her family blames Turner for her deteriorating mental health) Parker was irritated and defensive. His initial response was to appropriate victimhood with his circumstance.
Intentional, or just a naive media mistake, Parker diminished rape victimization. He wanted to brush the whole thing off as some adolescent escape. His desire was to promote his film and not sidetrack it with a conversation about his complicity in a sexual assault. He wanted everyone to just turn the page. Please. It was so long ago, he implied. I want to talk about my film.
Social media’s refusal to accommodate him hijacked the media tour. The film was no longer the thing. Instead, Parker’s inability/refusal to express empathy for rape victims became a horror story. Was he that clueless? The defenders of female sanity in the face of male atrocity tweeted their disgust at Parker over and over.
In a twist of irony, Parker’s film included an emotional rape scene played by actress Gabrielle Union who herself was raped at gunpoint when she was 19 years old, (a similar age to Parker’s accuser). Her attacker accepted a plea of 33 years in prison so Union didn’t have to face him in a courtroom but the trauma persisted nevertheless. As Parker was fighting negative stories, and Black Twitter exposed Parker’s pomposity, Union wrote an op-ed about her rape trauma for the L.A. Times. “I cannot take the Nate Parker rape allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent?” she wrote. “I took this role because I 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.”
That Parker couldn’t publicly express sympathy for brutalized women like his co-star left open the supposition that for Nate Parker sexual violence was less a tragedy and more an entertainment prop to weaponize.
The movie opened on schedule in October, despite the shaky promotional media tour. That first-weekend ticket sales were anemic. The film, despite its Sundance romance, was a financial flop. Critics were halfway complimentary but not in love, certainly nothing close to how they felt about 12 Years A Slave.
Nate Parker was livid and blamed black women for the film’s failure, because, he fumed, his wife was white and black women wanted to settle a score. It was a ridiculous summation and ignorant too.
It was the rape. And suicide. And Parker’s nonchalance about rape relevance that cost him bodies in the theaters. Black women are fatigued by the Nate Parkers of the world who diminish sexual violence because its convenient and because they assume ownership of women’s bodies. Parker’s media tour justifications were a conjugated form of male misery and condescension. Quickly, it metastasized into an object of scorn on Twitter. Hence, a lot of sisters boycotted his film.
More than one black woman pointed out to the aggrieved Parker that it wasn’t their fault his movie failed. Look in the mirror dude.
Once upon a time, social media was vainglorious and self-absorbed and facile. It was a perpetual adolescent lacking impulse control. Then the political unrest in Iran abruptly reshaped how the platform was used, more information-centric than a springboard of conceit. Iranian students demanded an audience far removed from gathering likes or managing their anxiety. In danger, they wanted the world to see what was happening to them. Social media had no choice but to grow up and adult.
And yet the same platform that can unite millions in a political struggle, that can make us aware of what is happening to pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, or in the case of Nate Parker, can say to men you better honor rape victims or we’re coming after you with a vengeance, the same technology that shepherds the lonely and the isolated, viciously bullies middle schoolers, shames the transgendered, creates a standard of beauty that is unattainable, nurtures conspiracy theories, and conflates insults as comedy. The equal voice social media boasts about isn’t always pure. Social media can be toxic in the details. But it can be enlightening and healing too.
Take Chanel Miller’s victim impact statement that went viral. Miller said in a court of law to her rapist Brock Turner, “you have been inside of me but you don’t know me.” The gravity of her words was so earth-shattering, it released a tsunami of repressed pain across various social media platforms. So much of media is low hanging fruit but at that moment all the tumult social media can create in individual lives slipped into a triumph of female emancipation.
There’s a theory about social media’s presence in our very complex lives. It is less about us than the interpretation of us. Less about who we are and more about what we think we are, or what we want to be. It’s both aspirational and staying in the middle.
Metaphorically, social media reminds me of a first marriage. The romance and thoughtful gestures, the quiet friendship, and the dirty fights where you intentionally say something out of line you can’t take back. You create a wound that isn’t forgotten which is what social media tries to be on its worst days of wretched sexism and racism, forgettable wounds. Scars that try to dissolve but can’t.
By and large, the attraction and eroticism of tweeting and posting is unrestrained speech without enduring a sustained loss. Except in rare cases, social media isn’t lined up to take something from you. Say what you feel in the moment and share it with the world. Yes, there are those who step knee-deep in it like Nate Parker did and it can turn into a public catastrophe. But for the most part, the punishment has an expiration date. Nate Parker appeared in another film this past September. He wrote and directed American Skin, his take on police brutality.
But the ethical question for society and culture has little to do with resurrections and more to do with the world beyond the walls. Is the world a better place because social media decides who to prosecute? When it comes to racists, sexists, folks that hate, and just general misogyny, social media is judge and jury. It appears equitable but is not. Those in their living rooms or at their desks or in the tub posting or tweeting don’t really have adjudication power. They just have opinions. Or, insecurities.
Recently, the rapper T.I. was chastised after he mentioned without shame-tsk tsk- that he was present at his daughter’s gynecologist’s appointments so he could be sure her hymen was intact. It was a ludicrous proposition and frightening too. I can’t imagine my father peering over the stirrups to look at me half-naked. T.I. probably exaggerated the entire thing but social media blew it up into an erratic mess of morality, feminism, and stupidity.
It seems to me that the beloved attachment to tweeting and posting is one of convenience and vanity, and by default, stratification. It’s easy to be open when you’re online, unchallenged. Easier to have conversations when not looking into someone’s face who disapproves. The rejection isn’t immediate and when it happens there is a limit to the disaster. Even then it’s anticlimactic and not a horde of grief. You can turn your notifications off.
But it’s more than that too. Holding the powerful, the racist, the sexist, and the morally bankrupt accountable bestows a priestly essence. It portends a fantasy that you can actually capture wretched people and punish them because- and this is the lie- you are far better than they.
There are tender moments where social media has just been divine. A missing child rescue because her photo was everywhere. The ALS cold water challenge. Relief efforts after Florida hurricanes or California fires. Those isolated moments of kindness keep us engaged with our peers online, waiting for our cynicism to be restored into innocent wonder. While waiting, all the repressed stuff in our bodies is a tense taut string ready to pop.
Many believe that when you are online you aren’t alone in the world but there is a distinction that is often missed with that kind of syrupy sentiment. Being responsive and reactionary online, even being present to post, is incidental affection. It is so small, too mundane to resonate beyond the hour in which it happens. It is a kind of piecemeal affirmation that won’t last.
The poet and playwright Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872–1906) explained social media a century before social media ever existed, poetically describing its users as engaging in trickery: we wear the mask that grins and lies. It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes. We sing, but oh, the clay is vile. Beneath our feet, and long the mile. But let the world dream otherwise. We wear the mask.