Nate Parker — actor, director, producer — has created a brilliant film that's set to open in October, "The Birth of a Nation." Publicity for the film has led to publicity about a sordid episode in Mr. Parker's otherwise inspiring biography: He and his co-writer were charged with sexually assaulting another student 17 years ago when they were Penn State University undergraduates; Mr. Parker was acquitted, his co-worker was convicted of sexual assault, though the guilty finding was later overturned.
That incident has led to a social media-driven drumbeat against support for the film, which early prognosticators say has "Oscar" written all over it.
As much as I abhor the conduct that Mr. Parker is said to have engaged in, I support the film, a snippet of which I recently saw during a presentation at the joint convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists. Its subject is a little-known part of American history: the story of a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1831, characterized by Mr. Parker as Turner's "attempt to throw a wrench into a system that would not only decimate him but would decimate his children's children." That story resonates today.
As one who has personal experience with sexual assault as a college student years ago, I understand those, especially women, who refuse to separate the art from the man who created it. I do not give a pass to people whose egregious actions are dismissed by some as "youthful indiscretion" — not to a teen-aged Mr. Parker and not to 32-year-old Olympic swimmer Ryan Lochte, whose drunken rampage in Rio last week has been so characterized by some apologists.
Let's get the language straight: Some, including his supporters, are saying that Mr. Parker was found innocent. No, he was found "not guilty." There is a difference, as he himself seems to have begrudgingly come to see. He released a statement on Facebook last week, after it was revealed that his accuser ultimately succeeded in taking her own life in 2012, having attempted to do so several times, including just three months after the 1999 incident. She apparently never recovered from what she said was rape and what he said was consensual sex, nor from what she said was a concerted harassment campaign that followed against her on campus. This is what Mr. Parker said: "While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation."
OK. I know. Skeptics will say that he is saying what needs to be said to preserve his rising star in Hollywood, enhance both the box office and maintain the Oscar buzz. But, as Pope Francis said in a different situation, "Who am I to judge?" If the Pope can leave some decisions to a higher power, so can I.
I have not seen a Woody Allen film since he became mired in sexual scandal in the 1990s involving his family life with Mia Farrow, the actress with whom he was involved but not married to for more than a decade. Not only did he have an affair with one of Farrow's adopted daughters beginning when she was about 21 (he married her in 1997), but another of Farrow's daughters that he, too, adopted, accused him of having molested her when she was 7. He has denied that, and Hollywood continues to honor him. It also continues to honor Roman Polanski, who fled the country after being charged with drugging and raping a 13-year-old girl in the 1970s. I'm no more interested in his films than Mr. Allen's so boycotting them is no sweat.
I am interested in the story of Nat Turner, and I suppose that makes me something of a moral contortionist. But I take comfort in something that the Rev. Heber Brown III said the other day when I ran into him at a café in West Baltimore. As he sees it, one can view the film as beautiful and necessary, while at the same time seeing Mr. Parker's alleged past deeds as "part of the deep wickedness and unrighteousness that we have to name and call out." At his church, Reverend Brown is starting a men's group called Men Under Construction to provide what he calls "a safe space" for black men to deal with "patriarchy and toxic masculinity."
None of us is anywhere near perfect. Reverend Brown says this: "If the litmus test for us honoring something is that it must be without blemish and without wrinkle, without any dirt under the nail somewhere, that bar is so high I'm not sure if we will ever be able to honor anything that any one of us does."
So I will support the film while strongly urging that Mr. Parker, a father of five daughters who describes himself as a mature man of faith, use this moment to help all of us address a rape culture too often condoned, overlooked, explained away.
E.R. Shipp, a Pulitzer Prize winner for commentary, is the journalist in residence at Morgan State University's School of Global Journalism and Communication. Her column runs every other Wednesday. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.