The glare varies for Casey Affleck and Nate Parker on Hollywood’s awards trail

Casey Affleck and Nate Parker
Casey Affleck and Nate Parker –AFP PHOTO / Getty Images

LOS ANGELES — This was supposed to be the awards season when Hollywood, having been scorched by consecutive #OscarsSoWhite years, avoided tumult over race.

Not so.

In heated conversations in Hollywood in recent weeks, prompted by articles on websites like The Daily Beast, Mic and ThinkProgress, movie insiders have been grappling with whether there is a double standard at play — involving race, power or both — in the treatment of Nate Parker, a relatively unknown artist who has been sidelined as an Academy Award candidate, and Casey Affleck, the brother of moviedom royalty who is a leading contender for best actor.

Parker, the force behind the slave-revolt film “The Birth of a Nation,” faced intense scrutiny in August, including from The New York Times, when new details surfaced concerning a case in which he was accused — and later acquitted — of raping a fellow student while at Penn State nearly two decades ago. The media storm, made worse by several contentious interviews given by Parker, 37, resulted in a poor performance at the box office for his film and its shunning on the seasonal awards circuit. While heralded at festivals, the film received mixed reviews upon release.

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Affleck, 41, has not received similar scrutiny over two sexual harassment suits that were filed against him by two women in 2010 in civil court. At the time, a lawyer for Affleck, who plays a sorrowful New England handyman in the celebrated drama “Manchester by the Sea,” denied the accusations as “desperate, fabricated claims” and called them an “extortion tactic.” Nothing was proved. Ultimately, he settled for undisclosed sums.

Affleck’s performance has continued to rack up accolades, despite fresh attention on the 2010 lawsuits by the news media. (Asked about them by The Times for an article in November, he responded: “It was settled to the satisfaction of all. I was hurt and upset — I am sure all were — but I am over it.”) More than two dozen critics’ groups and festivals have named him best actor for his “Manchester by the Sea” performance. He is up for a Golden Globe on Sunday and a Screen Actors Guild award on Jan. 29.

Why do the two men find themselves in much different circumstances?

Perhaps people think Affleck’s performance, and the movie in which he stars, is better. Maybe it’s because, as an Oscar nominee and the brother of box-office star Ben Affleck, Casey Affleck has attained a privileged status in Hollywood; the power surrounding him may make people reluctant to openly criticize him. Certainly a factor is the fact that there was unsettling new information revealed about Parker’s rape case in August — that his accuser later killed herself — while there have been no new disclosures regarding Casey Affleck’s cases.

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Or maybe, say those mindful of Hollywood’s checkered racial history, it is because Affleck is white and Parker is black.

Jeannie Suk Gersen, a professor at Harvard Law School who teaches criminal law and sexual harassment law, said the reason could be far simpler: Parker’s case was criminal and Affleck’s was civil.

“People carelessly conflate rape with the entire range of sexual misconduct that can occur,” Suk Gersen said. “It’s all repulsive. But both morally and legally there are distinctions — degrees of behavior. Parker was accused of something far more serious.” (Suk Gersen is particularly attuned to Parker’s case, having contributed an article in September to The New Yorker, “The Public Trial of Nate Parker.”)

Casey Affleck in “Manchester by the Sea.” —Claire Folger / Amazon Studios and Roadside Attractions

Parker was acquitted by a jury. Affleck settled the civil sexual harassment lawsuits filed against him, something that his detractors have seized upon as tantamount to an acknowledgment of guilt.

“As a lawyer, I don’t take a settlement to mean much of anything,” Suk Gersen said. “Sometimes it means guilt. But sometimes people who are innocent — especially celebrities — settle cases after doing a cost-benefit analysis: How much do I want to pay for this to be over?”

One of the women, a producer named Amanda White, said in her complaint against Affleck that she endured “uninvited and unwelcome sexual advances” on the set of the film “I’m Still Here,” which he directed. The other woman, cinematographer Magdalena Gorka, accused Affleck of curling up next to her while she was sleeping and “caressing her back.” (The women and their shared lawyer declined requests to comment for this article.)

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Even so, there are people in Hollywood — none of whom would speak on the record — who believe that Affleck is insulated because he is a white man. Their feeling is that the entertainment-industry awards groups, still largely dominated by white men, are judging him differently than they judged Parker.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner, center, in a scene from “The Birth of a Nation.” —Jahi Chikwendiu/Fox Searchlight via AP

That sentiment has also appeared on social media.

“The racial inequality between Affleck/Parker cases disgusts me,” Julia Campanelli, an actress, said recently in an unsolicited Twitter message to a Times reporter.

Affleck’s supporters and even some people who worked with Parker to promote “The Birth of a Nation” believe that comparing the two men is absurd — the definition of false equivalency, or when each side of a debate is presented as equally credible, even when the factual evidence is stacked heavily on one side. While refusing to speak publicly because they did not want to add momentum to the discussion, two studio executives wondered if the negative attention on Affleck is an example of negative whisper campaigning by Oscar rivals.

Parker declined an interview request. A spokeswoman for Affleck declined to comment.

The friction surrounding Affleck comes amid heightened attention on misconduct against women by men in the entertainment industry, including Bill Cosby, who is facing a June criminal trial on charges of aggravated indecent assault, and Johnny Depp, who was accused of domestic violence in May. (A restraining order against Depp, requested by his ex-wife Amber Heard, was later dismissed with prejudice.) In December, a new round of outrage erupted over the treatment of Maria Schneider by Bernardo Bertolucci and Marlon Brando on the set of “Last Tango in Paris,” which was released in 1972.

The awards season currently underway includes other questions about whether voters can — or should — separate art from the artist. Mel Gibson, for instance, became a Hollywood pariah in 2006, when he was charged with drunken driving and went on an anti-Semitic tirade. In 2011, he pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor charge of battering a former girlfriend.

But Gibson’s “Hacksaw Ridge,” a war drama, is now vying for awards. He is expected to attend the Golden Globes, where “Hacksaw Ridge” is up for three honors, including best director and best picture.

This was meant to be the Oscar contest that soothed Hollywood’s racial divide. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, responding to protests over two straight years of awards nominations for only white actors, implemented substantial changes last year to its voting requirements, recruiting process and governing structure. At the same time, studios pushed forward films with diverse casts, including “Fences,” “Hidden Figures,” “Loving” and “Moonlight” — all of which are expected to contend for prizes, some in multiple categories, at the 89th Academy Awards in February.

Nominations will be announced Jan. 24.