As the world awaits Nate Parker’s highly touted The Birth of a Nation, it was only a matter of time before the media went antsy and digging. Parker, to his credit, tried to own the story, but I imagine that in the week or so since it’s spiraled beyond what he may have expected: In attempting to acknowledge and defend against rape allegations that were made against him and a friend (and coworker) in college, Parker has invited in more awareness to his past.
Whether he thought that would be enough to clean house I can’t say. What does seem clear was he was unaware the internet would be so vigilant about the ways in which he actively played up his life since: The “importance” of the movie he’s bringing to the world; the fact that he mentioned his wife and four daughters multiple times (after inviting the journalist into his home strewn with remnants of a family life); the ultimate fate of the woman who made the accusations; the notorious failure of the criminal justice system when it comes to sexual assault.*
And so fans, interested parties, and pop culture connoisseurs are once again plunged into the debate: Can you separate the work of the artist from the artist? Should you always?
In a perfect world I want to say yes. It’s possible to duck into a theater, a show, or a book without knowing the creator’s politics, without ever being influenced by them. Theoretically they are utterly separate; like how David Lynch maintains that the married-too-young and father-too-fast period of his 20s had nothing to do with his work on Eraserhead, a movie that (amongst other interpretations) is about a young man grappling with an unexpected pregnancy.
But in execution I haven’t much found it to be possible. As if it weren’t enough that many of the people who insist on the Chinese wall don’t seem to have any skin in the game in this sense, there’s seldom a piece of art that you can’t examine at least some sort of message or motivation for. And I’m not sure I think we should strip it of that. Cultural context matters. The atmosphere around production and artistic decisions is compelling, it furthers philosophies, and it adds to the significance of it all.
I’m not sure whether Nate Parker will effect my viewing of Birth of a Nation. I can’t be certain where the hammer will ultimately fall for me on the issue of artist vs. art. All I know is it seems far too simple to just try to hide under the rug.
*I don’t mean to reinforce or express my own personal belief here. Just trying to flag the major sticking points for a lot of people I read.