Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Audience

Moviegoers gave The Birth of a Nation a standing ovation when it was shown at the Toronto International Film Festival Sept. 9, even as its director, Nate Parker, continues to weather controversy over whether he raped a young woman 17 years ago when he was in college. He was acquitted in the case, but questions linger.

Another standing O greeted Mel Gibson at the Venice Film Festival for Hacksaw Ridge. It’s the first film he’s directed since his own career imploded in 2006 after he unleashed an anti-Semitic screed against a police officer who stopped him for drunk driving. Even now, a decade later, pundits debate whether Hacksaw will be enough to resurrect Gibson’s directing career.

And later this month, legendary director Woody Allen will unveil Crisis in Six Scenes, his first-ever television series on Amazon, starring he and Miley Cyrus. Meanwhile, he continues to be dogged by accusations that he sexually abused his adopted daughter, Dylan, decades ago.

Three gifted directors. Three different controversies. But they trigger the same questions in us as moviegoers: Does a filmmaker’s personal life, and alleged personal failings, impact how we interact with their films? Should it?

This is a complex question for me. I think it’s a tricky one for most of us—just as it is for Hollywood itself. We’re all pretty inconsistent.

Gibson’s 2006 outburst (admittedly one of several on his celebrity rap sheet) turned the one-time superstar into a Hollywood punchline, squelching his career for most of a decade. Allen, meanwhile, continues to make movies with top-rung talent (his latest, Café Society, stars Jesse Eisenberg, Kristen Stewart and Steve Carell). The accusations, as serious as they are, haven’t seemed to impact his career much. Is it because Gibson’s misdeeds are incontrovertible and documented, while Allen’s own alleged sins slip into the shadowy realm of unverified allegations? Or is it possible that there’s a double standard at play?

One could argue that the entertainment industry is more inclined to rationalize or excuse troubling accusations when it suits. I think about Roman Polanski, another gifted director who was arrested for sexually assaulting a 13-year-old girl. He pled guilty and fled the country, never to return. But that hasn’t stopped him from making several critically acclaimed movies or winning an Academy Award in 2003 for The Pianist.

But are we so different in how we judge, or don’t? I bet that most of us would find Gibson’s comments to that police officer inexcusable … and yet that doesn’t stop us from appreciating The Passion of the Christ or Braveheart.

And as we get closer to the release of Birth of a Nation—a possible Oscar contender with just lots of faith content—these questions are only amplified. Even Gabrielle Union—one of the central characters in Birth of a Nation—struggles with them. As a rape survivor herself, playing a rape survivor in the movie, the allegations against her director impacted her deeply. In an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, Union writes:

My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control. It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice. It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen—other survivors, or even potential perpetrators. As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly.

In the end, Union is proud of the movie and hopes that people will watch it. “It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to look within,” she writes. “To open up the conversation.”

I don’t know if there’s a right or wrong answer here. All I know is that, sometimes, I feel the tension. Most of the time, I don’t have a problem separating an entertainer from his or her product. Just because someone has made some mistakes in their lives—even grievous mistakes—doesn’t mean that they can’t be behind great, even inspirational works of art. But as much as I love Bill Cosby’s comedy, I don’t know if I’ll ever be able to watch The Cosby Show again.

Do you feel that tension, too? And if so, how do you deal with it?

Who wrote this?

Paul Asay has been writing for Plugged In since 2007 and loves superheroes and finding God in unexpected places. In addition, Paul has also written several books, with his newest—Burning Bush 2.0—recently published by Abingdon Press. When Paul’s not reviewing movies, he hikes with his wife, Wendy, runs marathons with his grown kids, Colin and Emily, and beats back unruly houseplants. Follow him on Twitter @AsayPaul.

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