In recent weeks, Casey Affleck’s performance in Manchester by the Sea has gone from acclaimed awards contender to near-Oscar lock. The soft-spoken, scraggly-bearded actor has taken the stage at a number of ceremonies already—the Critics’ Choice Awards, the Gotham Awards, the New York Film Critics Circle—ahead of what’s looking like an increasingly likely victory at the Academy Awards. The surge of publicity has brought renewed attention to two sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him in 2010 that alleged he had manhandled women, was verbally abusive, and generally behaved outrageously on the set of his film I’m Still Here, which he directed. Both cases were mediated and eventually settled out of court for undisclosed sums.
The situation has spurred conversations that Hollywood still desperately needs to have about the consequence-free behavior and abuses of authority that can happen on movie sets, as well as the age-old argument over separating art from artist. Is an endorsement of Affleck’s (rapturously received) performance in Manchester by the Sea an endorsement of any alleged abusive behavior off-screen? Film insiders should weigh these tricky questions, but it’s also a dialogue that can be had without bringing up Nate Parker, the writer, director, and star of the 2016 drama The Birth of a Nation. And yet Parker’s name keeps coming up in every discussion about Affleck—and it’s a contrast that ends up diminishing and muddling, rather than clarifying, the larger issues at hand.
Parker’s film was hotly tipped for Oscar success when it won the Sundance Film Festival’s Grand Jury Prize a year ago, and it was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. Upon its release in October, however, it was overshadowed by the revelations that Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of raping a student in 1999; Parker was acquitted, but Celestin was not. He eventually appealed and the case was dismissed when the student refused to testify again in court; Variety then learned last year that she had killed herself in 2012. It was an undeniably ghastly story that Parker struggled to address, not helped by the fact that sexual assault was a crucial plot point in The Birth of a Nation. The film was released to much more mixed reviews than it had received at Sundance and subsequently vanished from the awards conversation.
“Why do Parker and Affleck find themselves in such different circumstances?” It’s a question that’s been repeatedly asked, most recently Thursday by Brooks Barnes in The New York Times, but previously by Mic, ThinkProgress, BuzzFeed, and others. I myself differentiated between the two cases (in passing) when analyzing the Oscar race last year. It’s become a depressingly buzzy question for this year’s Academy Awards season—why Affleck seems on the road to triumph when Parker has quickly become persona non grata, and whether the fact that Parker is black has something to do with that. But asking it is both reductive and unhelpful: It detracts from the seriousness of the accusations against Affleck by pitting them against a different set of charges.
After all, the question of “what is the difference between Affleck’s case and Parker’s” has already been answered, perhaps most concisely and thoroughly by BuzzFeed’s Anne Helen Petersen. Parker’s case was tried in criminal court, and hours of testimony and evidence (including a damning phone transcript) about the case are publicly available. He and Celestin both admitted to having sex with the alleged victim while denying that they raped her; the two then worked together, years later, to make The Birth of a Nation, of which Parker (who wrote, directed, and starred in the film) was the primary creative voice. Affleck is merely an actor in Manchester by the Sea, which was written and directed by Kenneth Lonergan (also tipped for deserved Oscar success this year). There’s far less publicly available evidence in Affleck’s case (filed in civil court), which makes it easier for him to pursue a publicity strategy of largely ignoring the allegations. His consistent response has been to note that the case was “settled to the satisfaction of all” and that he’s “over it.”
“People carelessly conflate rape with the entire range of sexual misconduct that can occur,” the Harvard Law School professor Jeannie Suk Gersen told the Times. “It’s all repulsive. But both morally and legally there are distinctions—degrees of behavior. Parker was accused of something far more serious.” That doesn’t mean that Affleck’s alleged harassment shouldn’t be discussed, or that Hollywood shouldn’t have more wide-ranging conversations about a star’s off-camera behavior. It also doesn’t dismiss the layers of privilege and systemic racism at work in the film industry; treating Parker’s history with the gravity it deserved is just not a perfect example of said racism.
By stacking the two cases up against each other, the allegations against Affleck are made to seem less “serious,” as ridiculous and facile as that might sound. The comparison might have been an interesting one to draw in November, when a widely shared Daily Beast article addressed the lawsuits against Affleck, but it’s no longer a productive one to make: The contrast only directs attention away from larger industry problems with sexual misconduct and racism. Whether or not the Academy Awards should separate art from artist is a whole other debate—but invoking Parker’s name is no way to resolve it.
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