The Apology Test: Two Flawed Directors, Two Films, Two Controversies—One Bottom Line

A pair of director-actors—O.K., auteurs—of what are supposed to be spectacularly good, Oscar-worthy, history-based movies that received standing ovations at two different major film festivals are currently embroiled in very public and escalating quagmires: Should their past personal behavior affect how we judge their movies?

Nate Parker and Mel Gibson:
Nate Parker and Mel Gibson: Is either truly repentant for past misdeeds?

A pair of director-actors—O.K., auteurs—of what are supposed to be spectacularly good, Oscar-worthy, history-based movies that received standing ovations at two different major film festivals are currently embroiled in very public and escalating quagmires: Should their past personal behavior affect how we judge their movies? Be grounds for viewers’ boycotting those movies? Be criteria for film critics’ appraisal of them? Can one separate the artist from his art? And, most important to me: Are these men repentant? Will they at least try to see what they got wrong?’ The filmmakers are Mel Gibson and Nate Parker.

The much-proffered-on-social-media question about separating art from artist actually doesn’t interest me—it’s too academic, appropriate for judging larger-than-life dead men from un-PC times—the badly womanizing Picasso, the badly behaving Miles Davis, the wife-killing William S. Burroughs and wife-stabbing (and murderer-coddling) Norman Mailer; even, if one must, the still-very-much-with-us Woody Allen (accused by his daughter Dylan, and her mother Mia Farrow, of having molested Dylan in 1992) and Roman Polanski (who pled guilty to statutory rape of a 13-year-old in 1977, then, after his plea deal was rejected, famously fled to Europe to escape prison and has lived there ever since).

By contrast, the Parker and Gibson cases were potted in more recent cultural soil. (The incidents were 1999 and 2006.) They are about two very different men and two very different sins. One is a wealthy and powerful 60-year-old white Christian accused of anti-Semitism. The other is a 36-year-old Africa-American starting a victory lap with a passion project, The Birth of a Nation (perfect to combat the #OscarsSoWhite taint and to symbolically redress the white-cop-on-black-male killings that spurred Black Lives Matter) but who is complexly ensnared on the wrong side of one of the most high-profile, sympathy-generating activist causes in America today: campus rape.

Are journalists charged with holding them accountable? Not letting them off the hook by asking softball questions instead of discomforting them by pelleting them with questions about their serious alleged misdeeds? If the answer is yes, then let me start by saying, retroactively, I plead guilty.

I talked to Mel Gibson on the phone in July 2010, days after he made ugly headlines for hurling profanities and threats of violence at Oksana Grigorieva, in earshot of their baby daughter Lucia. Even apart from that then-real-time ugliness, I (who happen to be Jewish) was acutely aware that I was speaking to an anti-Semite, a term I do not use lightly. I had felt his bigotry when The Passion of the Christ was released in 2004 and felt it all the more so when, in 2006, he had been apprehended while speeding, allegedly drunk, down the Pacific Coast Highway and had shouted to the arresting officer, James Mee, “Fucking Jews!…The Jews are responsible for all the wars in the world. Are you a Jew?” I was aware that he’d never demurred against his father Hutton Gibson’s proud Holocaust denial and angry disavowal of Vatican II, which took the Jews-killed-Jesus stance out of the Catholic canon. (When, in 2004, Diane Sawyer gingerly asked Gibson if he had any differences with those views, he threatened, “He’s my father. Gotta leave it alone, Diane. Gotta leave it alone.”—and the subtly fearful snap back of the head of this wife of Hitler-Germany escapee Mike Nichols spoke volumes. In a later interview, Sawyer virtually begged Gibson to take back his incendiary remark to Mee; he refused: “I think [the Jews are] not blameless in the [Mideast] conflict,” is what he said.) And I was aware that he had founded and funded the Holy Family Catholic church in Agoura Hills, near Malibu, whose doctrine contends that the Jews killed Jesus.

But what happened when I talked to Mel Gibson on the phone?

I caved, of course.

The phone call—he called me from Mexico (and sounded vulnerable as all get out)—was in relation to a magazine cover profile I was doing on Jodie Foster, who had just directed him in The Beaver. Foster, his close friend, had counterintuitively raved to me he was “the easiest, nicest person I’ve ever worked with” and that “the second that I met him I said, ‘I will love this man for the rest of my life,’ and that’s been true for 20 years.” Besides, Gibson’s publicist, who set up the call, is one of Hollywood’s loveliest gentlemen (and the son of Holocaust survivors) and had helped me a great deal on another story. But the overwhelming reason I stayed polite and narrowly on topic with Gibson was simple: I was a professional magazine journalist on assignment. The conversation was to elicit Gibson’s insights and feelings about Jodie Foster, nothing else. Case closed. No contest: I put aside my personal feelings about larger issues. But a part of me always felt morally cowardly for doing so.

Now, in days, many journalists will be in the same position. Gibson has directed a new movie, Hacksaw Ridge, about a pacifist in World War II (apparently wonderfully played by Andrew Garfield), which garnered raves at the Venice Film Festival. Its planned release has occasioned talk about Gibson’s abiding refusal to correct his anti-Semitism. (In fact, he seems to be flaunting it. In early September Glenn Beck posted a paraphrased complaint Gibson had just made to him about Passion, which earned $612 million worldwide: “Some Jewish people—I guess some rabbis or something, I didn’t get into it—somebody stole a copy of the movie before it was shown to anybody…And then they did a deal in The New York Times with all these rabbis trashing him as an anti-Semite…‘and they would spit on me on the street.’ ”) Yet at the Venice screening the journalists acted like I had: They asked about the film, nothing else. This led entertainment writer Roger Friedman to headline a recent column “Venice Press Doesn’t Ask About Famous Quote Blaming Jews ‘for all the Wars in the World.’ ” “The real tests will come when American press come face to face with Gibson,” Friedman wrote. “Will there be a complete amnesia about what has gone on for the past decade?” Or will some bold, public-service—and buzz—minded journalist bring the issue up? That would be important—and fair, I think. But Gibson’s answer would likely be unyielding. In 2014 he said, “It’s behind me…It keeps coming up like a rerun, but I’ve dealt with it…responsibly, and I’ve worked on myself and anything I’m culpable for.”

But there’s little proof of that. In 2012 screenwriter Joe Eszterhas claimed that Gibson had recently told him, “The Holocaust is mostly a lot of horseshit” and called Jews “oven dodgers.” When a reporter did ask him about his provocative remarks about Jews, Gibson noted that the man’s last name was Rubin and snidely wondered if he had “a dog in this fight.” And when, the other day, I queried the Anti-Defamation League, I got this email from its CEO, Jonathan A. Greenblatt: “ADL was not satisfied with Mel Gibson’s attempted apology after his anti-Semitic rant in 2006. [The official apology is oddly, still Google-able on the ADL website.] We have much experience in dealing with such issues and have many times worked with public figures who came to recognize their prejudice toward Jews. We see little evidence of that from Mr. Gibson, who never has distanced himself from his father’s condemnation of Vatican II and of the Church’s new attitude toward Jews.” Abe Foxman, the recently retired national director of the ADL, who interacted with Gibson (and tried to counsel him) after the 2006 outburst, was blunter with The Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove, saying, in their phone conversation, Gibson “never recanted, he never apologized…Gibson tried…some PR gimmicks, but this [Beck] interview only shows how deep [his anti-Semitism] is, how ingrained it is in him.”

In 2012 screenwriter Joe Eszterhas claimed that Gibson had recently told him, “The Holocaust is mostly a lot of horseshit” and called Jews “oven dodgers.” When a reporter did ask him about his provocative remarks about Jews, Gibson noted that the man’s last name was Rubin and snidely wondered if he had “a dog in this fight.”

Can a man hold these views today—the early 20th-century poet and famous anti-Semite Ezra Pound doesn’t count—and still be a great talent? Probably, but that’s irrelevant. That he apparently isn’t open to really hearing what people find so disturbing and hurtful, or to true self-reflection and self-reformation—to genuine apology: That’s my criterion.

I have trouble with people who don’t apologize. No matter the civil rights accomplishments of Al Sharpton, the fact that he has never apologized for the 1980s Tawana Brawley hoax (or for his role in the Freddy’s boycott in Harlem, a situation in which people died) keeps him toxic in my book (and keeps me from calling him “Reverend”). Same with Mark Wahlberg. I don’t care that he goes to church daily or has set up a thriving foundation that helps at-risk youth; the fact that he never said he was sorry to the family of the two girls whom he, then 14, hit in the head with a rock after hurling racial slurs at them, nor to the family of the two Vietnamese men he assaulted, two years later (also hurling racial epithets)—blinding one in one eye—is enough for me to dislike him, permanently.

On the other hand, men whose politics I abhor have sparked admiration in me for their apologies. In 2007, during the pre-McCain-selection period of the race for the Republican nominee in the 2008 election, both Sam Brownback and Mike Huckabee, who were campaigning for the spot, appeared at a debate sponsored by Morgan State University, a primarily black college, at which the more prominent contenders declined to show. Both men apologized for their party’s shameful ignoring of the black constituency. Was there self-interest in their words, implying moral superiority to their opponents? Sure, but that didn’t emotionally matter to me. Simply hearing those words—“I apologize”—spoken by each, I felt a surge of respect for men whose every social issue stance I disagreed with. And, years earlier, the damage Bill Clinton did to so many by denying for so long any relationship with Monica Lewinsky was offset for me by the wacky charm of the oh-so-Clintonian excessive apology tour he embarked on when he finally ‘fessed up.

Women—the most high-level women—always apologize, of course. To take just a few very recent examples: Hillary Clinton regretted saying “deplorables”; Christine Todd Whitman apologized for the dangerous air quality that hurt Ground Zero workers after 9/11; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in July, called her criticisms of Trump “ill-advised” and, waxing chastised, vowed that “in the future I will be more circumspect.” And back in February Madeleine Albright apologized for saying, at a Hillary rally, the very quip—“There’s a special place in hell for women who don’t support other women”—that had always before drawn cheers. (It had suddenly boomeranged when female millennials felt patronizingly knuckle-rapped for supporting Bernie.)

Watching the unfolding case of Nate Parker is watching someone try to get the self-confrontation and contrition thing right—sort of—while also 1) being unable to resist an unattractive impulsive whine of self-pity, 2) trying to cover his hide, and, mostly, 3) trying to save his Oscar-winner-written-all-over-it movie from being harmed by a very ugly incident he participated in 17 years ago. Still, I think he is getting educated, in the midst of all this self-protection and even stonewalling. Does he have apology potential? I’d say yes.

Parker’s movie about the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner—a revolt instigated by the rape of Turner’s wife by a gang of white men—earned the highest pick-up price at Sundance—$17.5 million, by Fox Searchlight. It was hailed as a breathtakingly brilliant and socially relevant film, and the fact that it was conceived, written, produced and starred-in by a young journeyman actor, not Oprah or Lee Daniels, gave Parker a Cinderella luster.

Mark Wahlberg
Mark Wahlberg was involved in two violent incidents as a teenager.

But the inconvenient fact—and if Tom Wolfe were writing The Bonfire of the Vanities today, this could be his story—is that, in 1999, at Penn State, Parker and Jean Celestin (who is his co-writer on Birth) were arrested for rape of a fellow student. Muddy circumstances prevailed: Parker and the young woman had had some form of consensual sex the night before; she was unconscious, after drinking, at least part of the time during the next-day incident, when Parker and Celestin either reprehensively took advantage of her (a not unusual attitude in 1999) or flat-out raped her: the only valid attitude today. (The public’s attitude toward nonstranger rape—once called “acquaintance rape” and before that “date rape”—has undergone one of the sharpest, feminist-affected learning curves of any wrongdoing over the last 20 years, especially in the last five, with recent legislation, “Yes Means Yes,” for example; crusades, Joe Biden’s “It’s On Us,” for example; and media, the Academy Award-winning documentary The Hunting Ground and other films—reflecting the new absolutist criteria and the prominence of campus rape as a cause.) The victim called Parker later (and recorded the call), claiming to be pregnant (she wasn’t) in order to get the name of any third man involved and to get Parker to admit that he had penetrated her; he admitted the latter but insisted that their sex had been consensual. A group of black students protested that the victim’s being white made the arrest of two black men smack of racism. At the trial, Parker was acquitted, Celestin found guilty, and the jury was excoriated by feminists for its “victim blaming” attitude. Parker and Celestin allegedly stalked the young woman afterward, presumably to pressure her to change her story and drop the charges against Celestin. A retrial was scheduled for Celestin but canceled when witnesses became unavailable. Under stress, the victim dropped out of Penn State. The university awarded her a small settlement for failure to protect her. Parker’s acquittal, of course, remained securely intact; Celestin’s conviction was overturned on appeal. Parker and Celestin went on to film success. The woman sunk into a depression and drug use; the reasons might be multifold, but her brother insists the downturn started with the rape. At age 30, in 2012, 13 years after the incident, she killed herself by swallowing 200 sleeping pills.

When all of this came out shortly after Birth of a Nation’s glorious ascent, Parker’s initial response was something he naively thought would be helpful but was tin eared and self-serving—some called it disastrous. He teared up during an interview, giving the impression that he was a victim of “one of the most painful moments in my life.” Asserting very false equivalency, he added, “And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone.” He then trotted out his feminist cred via family members: five daughters. (My knee-jerk reaction was, That’s a lot of procreation for a 36-year-old these days!) “Lovely wife.” Mother who lives with him. Four younger sisters. Was this desperate and exploitive? But, can having so many females, especially daughters, in your family change a man’s attitude on a female-safety and female-dignity issue that’s already perceived differently than it was over a decade ago? I’d say yes. “I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters and a better husband,” he said. Parker also applauded the growing intolerance for sexual violence, awkwardly not mentioning his own culpability: “The reality is, this is a…very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up…I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”

Is this gung-ho feminist response, from a possible rapist who got off…annoying? Certainly. But if you asked me if Parker was now getting, on a gut level, the message that what he did in 1999 was dead wrong and criminal—a message reinforced by all those females in his family—I would bet, if not the house, then at least a couple of silverware drawers on it. He was met with candid criticism by women of color: Roxane Gay said she would not see his movie, and one of its stars, Gabrielle Union, who herself was a rape victim, posted that news of Parker’s 1999 case had given her pause. Other black feminists came out critically, too. What looked, by the old thinking, unhelpful—a star taking issue with her director’s past, usually reliable supporters now pointing fingers–is helpful: It’s pushed Parker. Gibson had put up a wall; Parker, I believe, is availing himself of a window.

After Parker was eviscerated for his initial reaction, he got with the program and posted the beginning of an apology: “I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.” Then, to Ebony, he moved on to address the part of his early speech that women had found so offensive: its patronization. No doubt with help from coaches, he zeroed in on male privilege. “To be honest, my privilege as a male, I never thought about it…Just like you can be addicted to white supremacy and all of the benefits, you can be addicted to male privilege and all of the benefits that comes from it. It’s like someone pointing at you, and you have a stain on your shirt, and you don’t even know it.” Parker was criticized for this, too, and by women of color—he still hadn’t expressed remorse for the dead victim. That the bar was perpetually raised on him, by women, seemed a good thing. He may have been listening mainly for the sake of his movie, but I think he was also hearing it himself. “You have a stain on your shirt, and you don’t even know it”: That line rang unrehearsed.

After Parker was eviscerated for his initial reaction, he got with the program and posted the beginning of an apology: ‘I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.’

At the Toronto International Film Festival the other week, this seemingly nice progress hit a disappointing snag he and his flacks got bullish. At a press conference a Canadian reporter was blocked from bringing up the 1999 case after aggressively trying to do so. At a wider press conference after the screening, reporters started threading the rape case into the questioning. Parker was asked if he planned to apologize to the victim. He refused to answer, saying that taking questions about the incident would “hijack” the film and be unfair to the “over four hundred [other] people” involved in the making of it and sharing a stake in its success. Stonewalling under the self-aggrandizing guise of selflessness and teamwork? Yes. Effective time-biding PR? For the moment.

What Parker will do now is a good question. So I turned to a contingent—feminists with specialties in sexual abuse—that, perhaps, might push him further; after all, he admitted that “dialogue” on the subject was “paramount.” Their advice will not surprise. Kylie Nilan, a UConn graduate who travels the country as a “passionate activist against all forms of sexual violence,” a specialty triggered by her “multiple experiences with rape” (and who was central in the campus rape documentary It Happened Here), said, “If Nate Parker really wants to show he’s sorry, he could start campaigning with one of the men’s anti-rape groups, like the One in Four campaign. I won’t trust him until I see him putting some acting behind his words.” Amy Richards, a founder of Third Wave Foundation and the head of the feminist lecture bureau Soapbox, is in favor of a “public acknowledgement” by Parker. “I think that process of having to name, very publicly, what you did will humble you,” not a bad thing for a man who says he regrets he considered himself a “player.” Dorchen Leidholdt, legal director of Sanctuary for Families, a New York City based nonprofit that serves 15,000 survivors of gender violence and their children each year and runs a pioneering campus gender violence initiative, goes the farthest: “Nate Parker should say, ‘I was wrong. I violated her. I take responsibility for that. Sex with an unconscious woman is rape.’ What a revolutionary act it would be for him to do that—to break the cycle of perpetrator denial and blame-shifting onto the victim.”

Could such a radical act work for rather than against the movie? Well, I can’t be the only person—and only moviegoer— who has a soft spot for a man who starts a sentence with “I apologize.” And when a movie is part of the long project of America’s talking honestly about race, apologies of all sorts—especially for bad things whose commission it is hard for the direct or remote participants to own up to—are relevant.

As for Mel Gibson, it will be interesting to see if the U.S. press repeat back to him his alleged Glenn Beck statement, his refusal to apologize to Deputy Sheriff Mee, the shocking slurs Eszterhas attributed to him; if they demand that he address the elephant in the room of his presumably beautiful new movie about the war that included the event—the Holocaust—that his father denies existed with his own strongly implied assent. Rabbi Herbert Brockman, of Congregation Mishkan Israel in Hamden, Conn., an interfaith and justice specialist who teaches at Yale Divinity School, says there are a number of reasons for anti-Semitic feelings: “experiential, theological, political. Then there are the pathological sources of anti-Semitism. To my mind, Mel Gibson falls in this category. It seems clear that the vehemence he has displayed is deep-seated anger for which serious therapy would be required. Is he redeemable? I do believe that all people are but not through superficial means.”

The statement that Mel Gibson presumably signed off on on August 1, 2006, which still appears on the ADL website despite the obvious breakdown of their rapprochement, stands as a vessel that can be filled. In it, Gibson did say the opposite of what he subsequently said to Diane Sawyer and others. He said, “I want to apologize specifically to everyone in the Jewish community for the vitriolic and harmful words I said to a law enforcement officer the night I was arrested on a DUI charge.” At least at one point he authorized those words. That apology has since been deemed insincere by the ADL—nullified by his subsequent words, per Foxman, a “PR gimmick.” But those four words—“I want to apologize”—have not been erased. That means they can spring back to life. “I have begun an ongoing program of recovery and what I am now realizing is that”—emphasis added—“I cannot do it alone.” That latter is true for most of us but seems especially true for Mel Gibson. Perhaps he will finally take that step, with a shrewd eye toward saving the Oscar chances for his movie—but maybe, this time, also with an open heart.


The Apology Test: Two Flawed Directors, Two Films, Two Controversies—One Bottom Line