When I read this thread’s title, I thought it was about D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 movie, which is widely recognised as a milestone in the development of film as an art form – Ebert lists it as one of his “Great Movies”, for instance – as well as a blatantly racist piece of propaganda for the Ku Klux Clan. I was going to comment that, yes, you should see a film like this, if you are interested in it, but you should be aware of the historic context and, of course, critical of its message. Just because you have an interest in watching this film doesn’t mean that you agree or sympathise with its racial politics.
Now, the discussion here isn’t about a movie with problematic (to say the least) content, but about a movie by a writer-director, who had been indicted of rape and, let’s not forget it, been acquitted of this crime in a court of law. In my opinion, this last factor is quite important and I’ll get back to it in a moment.
First, I would like to address @KWRoss’s original question, though, which boils down to whether you can separate the art from the artist. As my introductory reference to the D.W. Griffith movie is meant to show, I believe that you can even separate the art from its intended message to some extent. Consequently, I also believe that the art can be separated from the artist in most cases. Since Roman Polanski’s ‘Chinatown’ has already been mentioned, there is nothing in the film which plays down the criminality of unlawful sexual intercourse with a minor (or of rape), the crime to which Polanski pleaded guilty. Therefore, I have no problem in appreciating the film or Polanski’s directorial skill in making it. However, that does not mean that I condone or even endorse his actions. I don’t have a definitive answer for the more complicated situation when the artist makes a piece of very personal art and even addresses the charges made against him (or her) in his (or her) art, like Woody Allen did in a way with ‘Deconstructing Harry’. Yet, I still have no problem with watching ‘Deconstructing Harry’ or other Woody Allen movies, because the allegations (of rape) against Allen are exactly that: allegations, which Allen denies. I have no way of discerning whether they are true or not, so I consider him innocent until proven guilty.
Which brings me back to Nate Parker’s acquittal. I concede that I do not know about the details of the case at all and, of course, there is always the abstract possibility of a false judgement. Still, KWRoss has worded his statement “But new evidence … strongly argues that he may have gotten off easy” very carefully for a good reason, because he simply does not have the competence to assess this “evidence” properly and neither do you or I. Indeed, as far as I can tell (and please correct me if I’m wrong), the source is an article from news website “The Daily Beast”. The authors claim that they have reviewed hundreds of pages of court documents, which, presumably, have been available to judge and jury in the case as well, who are better equipped to evaluate them because they are bound by the rules of due process. They have interviewed a witness, who was also heard in court – but being interviewed isn’t the same as giving testimony in court. They have published excerpts from transcripts of conversations and of statements, but not the full statements.
To get to the point: From what (admittedly little) I know about the case, it would appear that Nate Parker is now being judged by public opinion – based on media reports – for a crime, of which he has been acquitted in a court of law. Being legally trained, I am aware that no judiciary system is perfect and that the legal system of the U.S. has its specific flaws, too. That being said, I am convinced that being judged in a court of law is a lot better and reliable than being judged by the media, who have their own vested interest, even if it is just acquiring clicks on the internet or selling newspapers. Just ask yourself the question: To what extent would this particular case have gained media attention if ‘The Birth of a Nation’ had been an obscure arthouse movie rather than a rave at the Sundance festival? Would the public have paid any attention if the crime in question wouldn’t have been a sexual offence but, say, fraud or tax evasion on a major scale?
So if you cannot divorce your opinion of Nate Parker, on whichever basis you have formed it, from the movie, don’t watch it. If I understand it correctly, that’s basically @Ken’s stance and it deserves respect. But please don’t blame me or anybody else for being morally complicit with a rapist, because I’m still interested in watching ‘The Birth of a Nation’.