Nate Parker is having a hard time. Although for the actor and filmmaker 2016 started off roaringly–in January, Fox Searchlight acquired his Nat Turner biopic, The Birth of a Nation, for an astounding $17.5 million after it screened at Sundance–by summer that roar, no less garrulous, revealed a marked tonal shift when we were reminded that as college a student back in 1999, Mr. Parker had been accused, though ultimately acquitted, of raping a classmate. (His friend and co-defendant, Jean McGianni Celestin, was convicted and sentenced to prison, but this conviction was later overturned. Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin have, apparently, remained close over the intervening sixteen years: Mr. Celestin has a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation.) The discovery that their accuser committed suicide in 2012, coupled with Parker’s disastrous apology, in which he repeatedly evoked himself and presented that “painful moment” in his life as something that had happened mostly to him, only bolstered public calls for a boycott against Mr. Parker’s film, with popular writers like Roxane Gay vowing in The New York Times that she would not see it. Touted since Sundance as a definite front-runner for all manner of accolades this coming awards season, this praise was quickly replaced with speculation: would Mr. Parker’s troubled past hinder his chances for, particularly, Oscar glory? Would audiences be satisfied with the word of the court, which found Mr. Parker innocent of any wrongdoing? Would audiences, critics, and Academy voters be able to differentiate between Mr. Parker’s past and his present, his work and his art? Or would the bad press prove to be the proverbial nails in the coffin of Mr. Parker’s once-promising career?
Whether or not The Birth of a Nation will be embraced when it is formally released in October remains to be seen. In the meantime, things keep getting worse for Mr. Parker. This month, an interview the director gave with BET surfaced, in which Mr. Parker, among other things, laments the sorts of roles available for black male actors in Hollywood, noting that such performers are often required to perform in drag or play “men with questionable sexuality.” “To preserve the black man,” Mr. Parker is quoted as saying, “…you will never see me take a gay role.” The internet is still grappling with this: Ms. Gay notes that Mr. Parker’s comments “read as homophobia,” and Goldie Taylor, writing for The Daily Beast, though she plans to see the movie anyway, as well finds Mr. Parker’s comments distasteful. Ebony.com’s Michael Arceneaux was less forgiving, declaring, “He’s never getting a dollar of mine again.”
All press is good press, perhaps, and while Mr. Parker’s repeated public bunglings might not speak to the merit of his work, they do speak, I think, to the content of his character, and what seems very clear is that Mr. Parker is a misogynist. Because he was acquitted of those rape charges in 2001 it’s not fair to call him rapist, but his public attitude regarding that “painful moment” — as Gay notes, “The solipsism is staggering” — and his blatantly homo- and femme-phobic comments reveal the internalized chauvinism he mistakes for masculinity and the propagation of harmful systems of oppression he mistakes for a “legacy.”
Mr. Parker’s observation that black actors, especially black male comedians, are routinely given roles in which they have to perform as women is not inaccurate. The list of black actors and comedians who have performed in drag is long and includes, to name but a few, Eddie Murphy, Wesley Snipes, Martin Lawrence, Jamie Foxx, Ving Rhames, Arsenio Hall, the Wayans Brothers, and Tracy Morgan. Keenan Thompson routinely portrays women on SNL, just as Flip Wilson, in the 1970s, regularly donned a dress on his own television show, and Tyler Perry has built an entire career (and amassed a considerable fortune) upon pretending to be a woman.
Mr. Parker is certainly not the first to comment on the phenomena. In 2006, Dave Chappelle famously discussed the issue with Oprah Winfrey, recounting a story in which he “took a stand” against producers who wanted to put him in a dress for a Martin Lawrence picture. The following year, director John Singleton griped to Black Star News, “I’m tired of all these black men in dresses,” and wondered why no one was organizing protests against the tradition. It’s a frequent enough occurrence to bear discussion, and the emasculation of black men as a tool of continued oppression is not without its theoretical merits: the condition of the black American male as he navigates a society bent on his destruction, and the tactics, both subtle and overt, upon which that society might rely, always bear consideration. Nevertheless, the argument that images of black men in drag or portrayals of black men who are not necessarily heterosexual are somehow detrimental to, as Mr. Parker would have it, the preservation of the black man is both disparaging and reprehensible, and that too bears discussion. Aside from suggesting that there’s something shameful or grotesque about femininity (his self-pitying recollection of those rape allegations drip with this same, thinly veiled misogyny), it’s a deplorable act of erasure and exclusion, attempting the removal of gay black men from the equation–as if their homosexuality somehow cancels out their blackness.
If it seems like I am here conflating homosexuality with cross-dressing or drag, it’s only because Mr. Parker’s comments conflate the two. While he expresses, explicitly, an unwillingness to play gay, the roles he offers as examples–Martin Lawrence’s Big Momma in Big Momma’s House and Mr. Perry’s multiple Madea movies–are hardly gay roles. These characters aren’t even of dubious sexuality: Mr. Lawrence’s Malcolm Turner is a straight cop who only puts on a dress because he needs to go undercover, while Madea, matriarch to an ever-revolving band of relatives, is an ostensibly heterosexual (and apparently progenitive) woman. (Indeed, Mr. Parker’s attribution of homosexual subscript to the Madea films is laughable, when one considers Mr. Perry’s consistently flawed perception of black homosexuality, wherein same-sex desire necessarily leads to disease and the destruction of family.) Mr. Parker, lacking the depth to see things like sexuality and gender as textured issues requiring textured terminology, uses these terms interchangeably, a collusion as offensive as his insistence that queer roles would be contrary to “material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch.” This view upholds a rhetoric that frames homosexuality as somehow crude, distasteful, or otherwise inappropriate for the family. (And let’s not even talk about the hypocrisy this point of view betrays, considering Mr. Parker’s drunken college three-way–as if there’s nothing even a little gay about running a train on a girl with your bestie.)
It’s evident that Mr. Parker’s version of black masculinity, with its obvious macho underpinnings, is one that considers homosexuality as not only deviant but obscene, and likely fails to recognize the boundaries of sexual consent. That he cops to these notions under the guise of faux black empowerment and concern for the black community only is equally discouraging, as his positions, far from advancing any cause of liberation, in fact encourage further animosity within the larger black community and strengthen divisions between marginalized groups, which only benefits the status quo. In a time when Hollywood has been confronted with its own diversity issues and has vowed to work to address those issues, it’s disheartening — and perhaps a bit terrifying — that someone with Mr. Parker’s insidious message might become the beneficiary of that change.