The Nate Parker Problem

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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 Beastthough 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.

 

suicide squad is awful as you’ve heard it is

suicide squad is as awful as you’ve heard it is.

the plot is sloppy and haphazard, clunking along pointlessly as moments of insufferably corny dialogue are plunked between sequences of lack-luster action. the art direction is not so bad–the joker’s (jared leto) green slick-back was really giving me ideas for fall, but harley quinn’s (margot robbie) daisy dukes and skin-tight tee, “daddy’s lil’ monster” scrawled across the breast, seemed like a cheap excuse to sex up a woman who is probably sexy in sweatpants. (the actress herself, in conversation with the new york times, expresses some ambivalence about the hot pants, but concedes that they are part of the character’s “iconography.”) of course, i’d have put her in the red and black jester’s costume she wore in the animated series, and which the movie tease us with early on–but that’s just me.

suicide squad introduces us to its titular anti-heroes by on-screen text that gives their names, neé and aka, and what they can do. as high-ranking government official amanda waller (played well but without investment by her majesty viola davis) walks national security advisors through a binder containing information on the top-secret task force she’s assembled, comprised of the worst criminals in the world, we meet our primary players. there’s deadshot, played by will smith, a sniper assassin who has never missed a shot. there’s diablo, a former cholo gangster who can spew fire from his hands, and captain boomerang, who throws boomerangs and hits on widows, and killer croc, a man who looks like a crocodile. (there are probably more characters but i’ve forgotten about them because, like the film itself, they’re forgettable.)

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in any case, waller has some hair-brained scheme to control these criminals by implanting exploding chips into their heart which she can detonate if they step out of line. to lead them she appoints captain rick flagg (an absolutely delicious joel kinnaman). there’s no immediate reason: waller has some speech about how the next world war will be fought by metahumans and the united states might as well be prepared. no sooner, of course, does she assemble this rag-tag group than one of them–an archaeologist possessed by a powerful witch known as the enchantress–escapes her control and begins wreaking havoc on someplace called mid city. send in task force x, who, inexplicably, are sent in to rescue waller and defeat the enchantress. none of it really makes any sense. the enchantress is building a machine to take over the world, but all this machine seems to do is turn ordinary people into shellacked minion soldiers under her control. one wonders why a sorceress so powerful–one who can make people see things that aren’t there, teleport, do basically whatever she wants–would go to all that trouble when she might just as easily cast a spell for world domination.

but no matter. there’s money to be made here, clearly. the show, no matter how tacked together, must go on.

a hungry margot robbie gives it her all but either it’s not enough or there’s not enough to give it to, or both. i was not at all impressed with her partially-realized  conception of harley quinn, but this might not totally be her fault: she certainly hasn’t been given very much to work with.

one feels worse for will smith as deadshot, who is forced to deliver some of the film’s worst dialogue and muster some of the films most artificial emotions. “you don’t kill as many people as i’ve killed and sleep peacefully at night by feeling things like love,” he tells harley quinn, which totally contradicts the idea, otherwise expressed throughout, that his primary motivation is his young daughter. particularly nauseating is a scene in which he attempts to teach her geometry through bullet trajectory–despite his previous efforts to conceal from her the nature of his business endeavors.

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similarily disgraced is jay hernandez as diabolo, a conflicted ex-con whose weepy tale about how he murdered his wife and children is a moment of failed pathos so horribly written one can’t help but squirm. he has vowed never to wreak his pyrogenic havoc again. he relents, of course, for his new “family,” and to save the world, which is another thing that felt like hard bullshit about this movie: how quickly these characters–“textbook sociopaths,” allegedly, as harly quinn observes at one point–are bonded together, ready to give their lives for one another. sure, this sort of unlikely commitment is a tentpole of the sorts of movies in which gangs of misfits band together to do something brave and unexpected, but it was particularly hard to swallow in a movie about people who murder their own offspring, or swim in sewers, or do whatever captain boomerang does.

but of course, none of these characters is clearly drawn or convincingly motivated. one can’t help but wonder if the writer was given a story board and tasked with working backward.

which might go some way to articulating why so many dc fanboys are freaking out about the movie’s poor critical reception: as fans of the comic book, they come to the movie with not only an investment in but also an acquaintance with the mythology that critics who are excoriating the movie lack. i’m one of those critics. they only characters i knew anything about going in were harley quinn, because i worshipped the batman animated series that birthed her in the 1990s, and june moore/the enchantress, because I kept seeing her in the trailers and was like who is that witch because typically i’m down for anything involving witches. lacking an exposure to the source material, i was dependent upon the movie itself for both inspiration and a reason to care. the film delivered neither of these things and, no matter what the fanboys believe–some of whom were scattered, solitary, about the theater at the viewing i attended yesterday–the film needed to.

i’d feel remiss if i didn’t mention jared leto’s turn as the joker, one of the most iconic of all the characters in the dc comicverse. always a standout and a staple, the joker became a template for the deranged psychopath supervillain after heath ledger donned the purple suit in christopher nolan’s masterful the dark knight. that was a stellar performance, and it’s clear how much leto hopes to do something similar here. poor jared leto. there’s something cookie-cutter about his turn. he seems to think craziness is best expressed in animated lip movements and creepy soft caresses and false grandiloquence. to be fair, leto had his work cut out for him, taking on this role post-ledger, and it also works against him that the character is completely unnecessary in this movie. he really serves no purpose other than to provide for harley quinn’s momentary escape–a gesture hard to take as romantic when one recalls that he caused her capture in the first place. then he pops up again, in the film’s final frames, purely, it seems, to tease a sequel.

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most of suicide squad is run-of-the-mill scenes of fantasy of violence spliced with incoherent bits of exposition that i guess are supposed to stand in for plot points. there is not a face that appears on screen that does not seem to wonder, at least at one point, what it is doing there, not a performance that doesn’t fall flat, and i really can’t say enough about how corny the dialogue is. i really cannot. at times i felt embarrassed, it was so corny. in a year that has already seen its share of disappointing comic book blockbusters, from batman v. superman to x-men: apocalypse, suicide squad really stands out.