‘The Birth of a Nation,” a historical drama about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave revolt, won top awards from jurors and viewers at January’s Sundance Film Festival. Arriving at the same moment as #OscarsSoWhite Twitter complaints of racial imbalance in the Academy Awards, the film was widely considered a top Oscar contender. Fox Searchlight won a heated battle for distribution rights, paying a record-setting $17.5 million.

Nate Parker, a little-known actor debuting as star, producer, director and screenwriter (a credit he shares with his college friend Jean McGianni Celestin), was hailed as a promising talent headed for Hollywood’s elite echelons. The Washington Post’s Arts and Entertainment section declared, “Remember the name Nate Parker. You’re going to hear it a lot when ‘Birth of a Nation’ premieres.”

For all the wrong reasons, the prediction was dead right. As the film approaches its October release, rape charges against both Parker and Celestin in 1999 have returned to haunt the pair. They haven’t yet attained the notoriety of Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes. Yet their reputations are perhaps even more toxic, reviving a long-running debate: Does the content of celebrities’ creative work mean less than their personal history?

When they were 19-year-old students at Penn State, Parker went out on a date with an 18-year-old female student. After a night of drinking, the woman, who has not been publicly named, entered Parker and Celestin’s apartment.

What happened afterward generated contradictory sworn testimony among student witnesses and conflicting court decrees. Prosecutors charged Parker and Celestin with rape and sexual assault. Parker and Celestin, for their part, attested it was a consensual threesome. In court, the woman testified that she had attempted to kill herself twice after reporting the rape.

In 2001, Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault with a sentence of two to four years. When he appealed in 2005, his conviction was overturned in Pennsylvania Superior Court, which ruled that his defense attorney had provided ineffective counsel. By then the witnesses had moved throughout the country and the world, so the district attorney’s office was unable to mount a retrial. The alleged victim sued the school, stating that Parker and Celestin harassed her after she went to police. The suit was settled in 2002 for $17,500.

As the story became an awards-season controversy in the entertainment press, the trade magazine Variety advanced the story to a chilling new level. The accuser’s brother, speaking anonymously to protect his sister’s identity, revealed that she had committed suicide in 2012 at age 30, having never recovered from the incident. “The trial was pretty tough for her,” he told Variety. “I think the ghosts continued to haunt her.”

The case struck some as a factually tangled, he-said-she-said affair, many as a sordid cause for outraged condemnation, and others as a 17-year-old tragedy deserving a gesture of forgiveness. While online commentary may ignore the principles of civil discourse, it is a supremely democratic acid test of 21st-century celebrity.

Widely acclaimed when it was first screened in January, “The Birth of a Nation” is now an ideological football. The American Film Institute, a national organization dedicated to cinema heritage, abruptly canceled a screening scheduled for late August, and Oscar insiders are buzzing that the film is effectively out of competition. It has become a heated controversy in the court of social media opinion. Some in the Twitter community insist in humanist terms that bad people do not create good art. Others argue the opposing viewpoint, that an artist’s moral flaws should not silence the celebration of valuable work.

Historic precedents

Academy Award-winning director Woody Allen in 1979’s “Manhattan” played a 44-year-old having a relationship with a 17-year-old, portrayed by Mariel Hemingway. In 1992, he separated from his girlfriend Mia Farrow’s household with Soon-Yi Previn, then 21, the adopted daughter of Farrow and her ex, Andre Previn. Throughout a bitter child custody battle between Allen and Farrow, he was accused of having sexually abused the couple’s adopted daughter, Dylan Farrow, then age 7. He has consistently denied any such abuse, and a criminal investigation yielded no charges in court. Allen and Previn married in 1997, when he was 62 and she was 27. He has been nominated for 12 Oscars in the years since, winning his third Best Original Screenplay award for 2011’s “Midnight in Paris.”

In 1977, after a photo shoot in Los Angeles, Roman Polanski was arrested for the rape of 13-year-old model Samantha Geimer and pleaded guilty to the charge of unlawful sex with a minor. He fled the country before he received his sentence and has spent four decades in Europe avoiding U.S. extradition. In 2003 Polanski received a Best Director nomination for his Holocaust drama “The Pianist.” The fugitive filmmaker won, and the gold statue was accepted in his absence.

As a film devotee, I see the private lives of movie creators as entirely separate from their moving images. German director Leni Riefenstahl was Hitler’s favorite propagandist, yet her stunning visual control in “Olympia” and “Triumph of the Will” is undeniable to me.

Despite their deplorable pasts, I often admire these artists’ work. When I watch it, my mind sometimes goes to a statement submitted by a colleague and friend of Polanski after his rape charge. “[He’s] important to me, a distinguished director, important to the motion picture industry, and a brave and brilliant man, important to all people.” The declaration came from the star of his classic “Rosemary’s Baby,” Mia Farrow.

If Hollywood can move beyond the offenses of skillful veterans, why would it shun gifted beginners? There could be worries that women’s rights groups would vehemently protest the ceremony if Parker and Celestin are nominated. Or concerns that insiders would be accused of pandering in an attempt to quiet earlier #OscarsSo­White complaints. Or perhaps attention will shift elsewhere.

Other potential Oscar contenders include “Loving,” a heart-tugging Jeff Nichols drama about America’s fraught relationship with race; “Fences,” with Denzel Washington directing and starring in an adaptation of August Wilson’s 1950s drama; and Ava DuVernay’s upcoming mass incarceration documentary, “The 13th.” If those less charged entries join this year’s race, perhaps we’ll move beyond arguments on messenger and message, talents and flaws, conflicts of gender and race and more. After all, the Academy’s focus is meant to be motion picture arts and sciences.

 

@colincovert