White Men Will Be Boys, Black Men Will Be Predators: Nate Parker, Casey Affleck, Intersectionality, and the Prevaricating Press

Buzzfeed–the “edgy” Internet periodical–has an article up about the fraternal Sundance cinematic wunderkinds Nate Parker and Casey Affleck. In it, the author–young, white, woman–explains why Parker’s history of sexual violence tanked his movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” and Affleck’s did not tank his (“Manchester by the Sea”).

She says Parker was accused of “rape” and put on trial while Affleck was only accused of “harassment” and never went to trial (“In today’s calculus of male dickishness… Affleck’s [assault allegation] reads as bad, but not as bad as a rape allegation”); and Parker was an unknown with no pre-existing image to offset the image given to him by the rape accusations while Affleck had an established image as the rare Hollywood “artiste.”

She says Affleck had enough name recognition and star power to lure a high-powered publicist to work on his behalf to quiet the conversation in the press about his misconduct, and publications were afraid to pursue the story and piss off his superstar brother, so they didn’t.  

On the other hand, Parker’s film was about slavery–a subject from which people are always eager to turn away; and Parker was the auteur of “Birth of a Nation,” which meant there was no one else people could support if they wanted to see the film but they didn’t want to support Parker at the same time (he wrote, directed, and starred in it).

Finally, Petersen says Parker adopted a wrongheaded PR strategy:

“On its face [she writes], [his] approach to his past seemed like a stroke of genius: He’d confront the allegations head-on in a series of all-cards-on-the-table interviews, thereby clearing the air (and path) to his Oscar campaign. 

“But those interviews quickly became a cascading clusterfuck, with Parker oscillating between attempts to distance himself from the ‘painful event’ and suggesting that paying attention to the allegations only deflects attention from the story of Nat Turner. To many, it seemed that Parker — who later admitted that he’d never truly thought about ‘consent’  — had blinded himself to his own culpability in the alleged assault, and was far more concerned about its potential effect on his film than the effect on the alleged victim.”

Affleck was just cannier, she says:

“‘People say whatever they want,’ Affleck told Variety. ‘Sometimes it doesn’t matter how you respond … I guess people think if you’re well-known, it’s perfectly fine to say anything you want. I don’t know why that is. But it shouldn’t be, because everybody has families and lives.’ 

“The implication [Peterson writes]: The claims weren’t just libelous; they fucked up Affleck’s family . . . 

“Here, Affleck’s framing subtly positions him — not the women — as the actual victim . . . Affleck’s move here is key [Petersen writes]: He hasn’t refused to talk about the allegations, which would likely earn disdain, nor has he dismissed them outright. But he has ensured that they are decentered from the conservation of both his performance and the film. The vast majority of press and audiences have followed his lead.”

Peterson only mentions race in her analysis when she writes about the “privileges” afforded Affleck by his name recognition and close association to his brother, Ben.

“Parker had none of that privilege [says Petersen]. He quit acting in order to concentrate full-time on the arduous task of acquiring funding for the biopic of a black historical figure, with no white savior, starring a relatively unknown actor. Parker had no name recognition, no famous brother, no famous brother’s best friend, no famous wife, no famous brother-in-law.

“He lacked that privilege, in no small part, because he is black. He did not travel in the same Hollywood circles as the Hollywood elite — save Denzel Washington — because he was not cast in the same movies. The chances that a family member or best friend would also make it in Hollywood were slim because, as a black man, his own chances of making it in Hollywood were just above nonexistent.”

This is true, but it doesn’t delve into the whole of the racial component to this comparison Petersen has sketched out between Parker and Affleck. 

The other reason that Parker’s movie tanked, and his career has very probably been ended, by the exposure of past rape allegations is the entrenched racist belief in the black cis-hetero male as the super sexual predator. And the fact that his alleged victim was white.

Before I get into this, I want to make it explicitly clear: I refused to see “Birth of a Nation” because of what I learned about the allegations against Nate Parker. I also wrote a post about the situation, and I took a lot of heat from a lot of the black men I know for helping to make this “important” film about Nat Turner into an essential flop.

I agree with Petersen that Parker did not handle the situation strategically, and I would add that he didn’t handle it with any real decency, either. 

I am thinking specifically about the nasty way he snapped to Robin Roberts, during an appearance on “Good Morning America,” that he wasn’t going to apologize for what happened with the young lady that accused him of raping her, even though he had admitted on record that she was intoxicated during their encounter, and he invited his roommate, Jean Celestin, to have sex with her after him (Parker) while she was in that state.

I also agree with Petersen that privilege–or lack thereof–is the most significant factor in why Parker has been treated differently than Affleck by audiences, media, and the Hollywood establishment.

However, it still upsets me that Affleck is the frontrunner for the Oscar “Best Actor” race when he is clearly guilty of sexually harassing multiple women while Nate Parker may never work in Hollywood again, and he was acquitted of his rape charges.

As I said, it’s racist and makes me wonder when black people will ever be viewed as possessing the same level of humanity as everyone else.

Because white men get to be these eternal boys. Like Ryan Lochte this summer in Rio. Like Dylann Roof, whoss arresting cops were apparently so worried about him that they felt compelled to feed before taking him to jail. 

White men will be boys, or so it’s gone. Like Brock Turner. Like Donald Trump. Trust me – I can keep rattling off names.

When white men do something wrong, or even something heinous, they do not lose the right to compassion or the ability to elicit compassion from other white people. 

Somehow, white people can always collectively believe that a white male that has committed a crime either made a mistake or acted out of some “childish” misunderstanding of the severity or destructiveness of what he has done. 

White people will argue, adamantly, and ironically, that his maleness–which according to the supremacist ideal is supposed to make him a paragon of human perfection when paired with his whiteness–has somehow made it impossible for the white male assailant to truly understand the ramifications of his crime. 

White male assailants are more often than not characterized as having this preternatural lack of “maturity” that that somehow lessens their culpability and can derive from anything from their social class to the level of their education to the economic consequences of their upbringing.

No matter what, there is something immutably forgivable that white people see in white males that commit crimes, and that is especially true when the crime is using sexual violence against girls or women.

The same is absolutely untrue of black men. In fact, Dylann Roof’s reason for shooting up the Emanuel AME Church was that “[black] men rape [white] women, and [they] are taking over [the] country, and [they] have to go.”

Roof is but one example of millions of white people that are willing to believe that black men are intrinsically disposed to committing rape.

The myth of the black cis-hetero male as a super sexual predator dates back to the antebellum South, where white men could not stomach the idea of consensual sexual relationships between white women and black men, and it remains with us like so many other vestiges of slavery. 

Pre-Emancipation, the perpetuation of the cult of true womanhood and lie of white supremacy necessitated that any sexual interaction between a white woman and black man be characterized as rape, and so it was that black male sexuality was pathologized in the American white imagination.

In a book titled Redefining Rape: Sexual Violence in the Era of Suffrage and Segregation, Stanford historian Estelle Freedman argues that the “rhetoric that African American men were disproportionately rapists became solidified in the late 19th century . . . perpetuated by court cases, news media, and racist popular culture.” 

According to Freedman, “… many of the white men who wrote rape laws, determined who would be arrested and charged with these crimes, and served as judges and jurors on sexual assault cases, not only perpetuated these stereotypes but used them to protect their own status as full citizens,” which “contributed to the immunities enjoyed by white men who seduced, harassed, or assaulted women of any race.”

These white men were able to root the myths that a) white men that commit sexual crimes are either just outsized adolescents or alpha males while b) black men are all latent or active rapists and the worst kinds of reprobates in the American unconscious.

Then, they formed a racist polemic out of the second idea by casting white women as the perennial victims of black male rapists, in order to validate anti-black hatred and justify anti-black violence.

This enrages me not just because it provides white women with a powerful weapon with which to manipulate black men (the false but deeply believable rape allegation) and white men with yet another way to discredit, disfranchise, and even incarcerate black men, whether or not they are criminals.

I am angry because the black man as super sexual predator myth also destigmatizes the rape of black women by black men, which is when and where I specifically enter this dialectic.

You pair the myth of the black man as super sexual predator with the Jezebel archetype, which white men have historically used to justify their own rape of black women, and what you get is the concept that black sexual relations are fundamentally and inevitably deviant.

You make it so that no matter who rapes a black woman–black man or white man–it is easy for authorities and juries to disbelieve the accusation. A black woman is always operating at a deficit of believability whenever she accuses someone of rape.

Which brings me back to the other thing for which Nate Parker has been shunned besides his blackness and his sexually violent tendencies.

His victim was a white woman, and white women are still the ideal of American womanhood, whose sanctity is not to be violated by a black man, and a dark-skinned one at that.

I strongly suspect that if his victim had been a black woman, the media would’ve depicted her with less respect and compassion; writers would’ve been more incredulous of her story; they would’ve been more open to Parker’s side of the narrative; they would’ve been less negative in their judgment of Parker.

It would’ve been the inverse of the numerous black male and female writers that were deeply suspicious of his victim because of the long history in this country of white women covering for consensual sexual dealings with black men with false rape accusations.

As far as these black writers were concerned, Parker’s victim was a post-postmodern Mayella Ewell, while many other writers–white and black–depicted Parker as a post-postmodern Bigger Thomas.

The bottom-line isn’t whether they were right or wrong, though. Not for me, anyway. I read what I read about Parker, and I felt what I felt, and I did what I did in relation to his past and his film, and I stand by that.

What I don’t like is that Casey Affleck can be a sexual abuser, and, since he is a white man, he can still be a celebrated member of the Hollywood inside.

Because sexual abusers should not have their behavior normalized, much less in that extraordinary way. Because there should be no difference in the way white and black sexual abusers are treated in our society. And there should be no difference in the way white and black victims of sexual abuse are treated.

That said, the discrepant ways that Parker and Affleck have fared down their paths from Sundance last January are symbolic of the tenacity of intersectional oppression in American culture, and they signify the deep need–as far as I can tell–for intersectional feminism like mine.








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