The industry adoration and buzz surrounding the film "The Birth of a Nation" has taken a backseat to a renewed focus on the creator’s involvement in a harrowing sexual assault case.
Although Nate Parker—the movie’s director, star and co-writer—previously discussed the case with The Virginian-Pilot in 2007, he received new attention while promoting his Sundance record-breaking film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. The renewed controversy began last Friday (August 12), when Deadline published court records and transcripts from the 1999 trial of Parker and his "The Birth of a Nation" co-writer—and Penn State University wrestling teammate—Jean Celestin for sexual assault. The trial stemmed from an incident between the two and an unidentified White female student. The woman mantained that they both had sex with her while all three were intoxicated and she was unable to consent. Parker and Celestin maintained that the sex was consensual. The Daily Beast published a narrative breakdown yesterday (August 16), sifting through hundreds of pages of court documents and incorporating supplemental interviews with friends, mentors and others involved in the trial.
Parker spoke to both Deadline and Variety, expressing his regret and desire to move forward with transparency without referring to the event itself. "The reality is, [long silence] I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now," he told Variety. "This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of," Celestin wrote in an email to Deadline. "I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career." Parker was acquitted of all charges, while Celestin was sentenced to prison time before being granted another trial. Prosecutors chose not to retry the case, saying that it would be too difficult to gather witnesses. Fox Searchlight, which bought the film for an unprecedented $17.5 million, stood behind Parker in a statement to Deadline.
The controversy grew this week with the release of two more articles: the aforementioned The Daily Beast piece and another Variety article featuring an interview with the accuser’s brother. Both stories revealed that the woman committed suicide in 2012, after previous failed attempts and years of battling mental health issues that her family believes grew in scope following the alleged assault. Both stories state that the accuser received a settlement from Penn State after she sued them for failing to protect her from harrassment and intimidation by Parker and his friends.
Parker responded to the new information via a Facebook post yesterday:
The case and current attention intersect with various themes—sexual assault, race, justice and historical record—that also surround "The Birth of a Nation," especially considering the film’s brutal depiction of a slave’s rape. The new stories expectedly prompted tremendous reactions, ranging from disbelief to horror to dismissal of Parker’s film, from a variety of social media users and cultural commentators.
Some doubted the charges against him, noting the trial’s racial dynamics and precedents:
We can open a whole barrel of worms about college white women’s sexual adventurism with black men. Don’t start none… #NateParker
— Black Propaganda (@ZuluPanther) August 16, 2016
Others said that they would not stand by Parker, the film or his social justice activism:
You are not "woke" if you’re a rapist. Period. Try again, apologists. Nat Turner’s legacy stands. Nate Parker? We’ll see… #NateParker
— Fortitude1913 (@Fortitude1913) August 16, 2016
This #NateParker story shows how it’s impossible to truly uplift your people (through film or other means) while also violating the women.
— Falating Woods (@Falawoods) August 16, 2016
— Amor del Sol (@ChiquitaSWEETS) August 16, 2016
Others believed Parker is being held to a hypocritical standard because of his race, given a percieved lack of attention when White men face similar charges:
— Jonathan R.Whitfield (@AlwaysPrayin) August 17, 2016
If the Stanford Swimmer gets a new chance at life after being convctd of rape so should #NateParker after being acquitted of same charge
— Bernard La General (@RogueIncognito) August 17, 2016
Many framed the conversation in a bigger discussion about toxic masculinity and patriarchal values, highlighting the way Parker’s response and the ensuing conversation about the case illuminates his and other men of color’s blindspots:
Nate Parker is a very loud and clear example of why straight cis black men need not be the face of black liberation.
— jules (@thecityofjules) August 16, 2016
This Nate Parker discussion is going to devolve so quickly and somehow Black women will be thrown under the bus. Mark my words.
— Kimberly N. Foster (@KimberlyNFoster) August 15, 2016
It’s strange how Nate Parker thinks having 5 daughters and a wife somehow represents goodness or redemption.
— roxane gay (@rgay) August 16, 2016
What are your thoughts on the controversy?