I saw “The Birth of a Nation” over the weekend. The movie had everything to do with race but in the months before its release the discussion around it was anything but. Blacks and whites in my circle united in their insistence that I boycott the film because Nate Parker was accused of rape 17 years ago. While my reaction to these individuals differed depending on their race, one thing is certain: all were asking me to boycott in an attempt to police the issue of violence against women because our criminal justice system does not police the issue well. For systemic change to occur, however, the energy and protests toward Nate Parker (and other individuals accused) must also be turned against a criminal justice system that does not value women.
My point here is not to litigate Parker’s case. Nate Parker was acquitted and whether you believe he should have been or not, there is a bad taste in the mouths of many. There is a larger issue in this country surrounding violence against women and we know it. In the absence of a functional justice system that values women, we are left to target and protest artists like Parker, in an attempt to reform a broken culture. As a black man, I’m well aware that I fare better beating a woman than I would selling marijuana, with respect to prosecution and jail time. I know that out of 100 rapists, only 3 will ever be incarcerated. Indeed, we feigned outrage when Ray Rice punched his significant other but in fact he was never punished by the law. When the law failed to punish Rice, we collectively looked to the NFL to police the issue. In the same way, Nate Parker’s critics are now looking for extra-judicial punishment as a proxy for justice.
We have a serious issue with violence (in all forms) against women but for many, the resulting anger and protest simply does not reach the targets which would produce systemic change. We can all skip the film in an effort to punish an individual but we must also look closely at an attorney’s position on these issues before electing them judge. I totally understand why we might choose to boycott this important film but we should also demand legislation that prioritizes the safety and equality of all women. True reform of our criminal justice system is what will concretize change in our society, not simply the boycotting of art. Further, we all pay taxes to ensure a criminal justice system is in place and we should get our money’s worth. Boycotting an individual artist may send a message but will it solidify meaningful reforms in perpetuity? I am skeptical.
True reform must be the goal, nothing less. Still there is the issue of what to do with the art often produced by very flawed individuals. Months ago I was excited about this film but in recent weeks I found myself conflicted due to the focus on Parker’s past. Many (seemingly genuine) whites asked me how I–or the black community as a whole–can support a Nate Parker, Bill Cosby or even an R. Kelly, for that matter? Black America has always struggled to engage whites on these matters. Thomas Jefferson raped children (whom he owned) but white folks aren’t mobilizing to discard the Declaration of Independence. Indeed, my tax dollars support a memorial to his honor. No one seems that disturbed over Charlie Sheen’s history of violence against women either and as such the critique from white America just sounds racist, frankly.
There were also plenty of black people advocating that I not support Nate Parker. “We have to hold ourselves accountable,” was the cry. Many black men like myself are so sensitive to white criticism that we struggle to remove our defense armor and engage in this discussion with sincerity. Parker was alleged to have done some horrible things (and acquitted of the rape charge, to be fair). Why should we support him? In the same way black men wish George Zimmerman no success, I now understand (after submitting to some schooling from black women) that we should wish no success to those who violate women. Black men must insist on this.
Still, I am troubled by our selective outrage as a culture. Why are some problematic figures worthy of support while others are not? I don’t have a great answer to all these questions but I do know that if we wait for choirboys to entertain us, we will never be entertained. The Temptations were amazing but also high most of the time. John Lennon was a genius and by his own admission beat women, as did James Brown. We adore Michael Jordan and just did a grand farewell tour for Kobe Bryant; both are known adulterers and Bryant a once-accused rapist. Roman Polanski raped a thirteen year old. I’m just confused as to when I’m supposed to care about the morality of our entertainers, at times. Unless we collectively throw out our James Brown records and Jordans, my instinct is to just say enjoy the art and let the law handle the morality part–except when it comes to women, the law often does not handle much.
So now what? As men we need to make enemies of those who are enemies of our women. Still, I don’t see boycotting art as a way to achieve systemic change and as a taxpayer I want to know that our legal system actually protects women. We should get serious about targeting our outrage into meaningful action that will produce legal reforms. We need to take elections much more serious and ensure that violence against women is a critical issue pushed each time we visit the polls. Lastly, every occasion we have to challenge misogyny in our own sphere, we should. That means when I know “my boy” is cheating on his wife I should check him. I should speak up when that questionable uncle is just a little too affectionate with his nieces and for the love of God, I can’t know that women around me are not protected, intoxicated or not.