— Complex Pop Culture (@ComplexPop) August 17, 2016
Anticipation for Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation has been building for months now, with both black and white audiences relaying anxiousness for the telling of Nat Turner’s slave uprising in the project written, directed, and starring the 36-year-old actor. And then out of nowhere a painful blow was dealt to the largely positive conversation surrounding the film and the man behind it: It was discovered that Parker and his college roommate Jean Celestin, who also co-wrote Birth of a Nation, stood on trial for rape in 2001.
Parker and Celestin, who were wrestlers at Penn State University at the time, were accused of raping an 18-year-old woman after a night of drinking in 1999.
“At the time, Parker admitted he had sex but claimed it was consensual. The woman said that she was unconscious, and did not consent to having sex with Parker or Celestin. She also claimed that she was stalked and harassed by Parker and Celestin after she reported the incident to the police,” Variety reported.
“Parker was suspended from the wrestling team, and later transferred to a different college in Oklahoma. In a 2001 trial, he was acquitted, based on testimony that he had previously had consensual sexual relations with his accuser. But his roommate was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. Celestin appealed the verdict, and a second trial in 2005 was thrown out due to the victim not wanting to testify again. (She sued the university and was awarded a $17,500 settlement out of court.)”
In a two-hour interview with Variety, Parker addressed the rape accusation head on, though he somewhat skirted around the matter of guilt, focusing on his acquittal instead, as though the two are mutally exclusive.
“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” he told the outlet. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
Declining to speak on the specifics of the case, Parker added:
“Look at it through the context of 17 years. It was a very painful for everyone who went through it. What I learned through 17 years of growth and having children and having a wife and building a family is that we have to fight for what’s right. We have to lead in love.”
Acknowledging knowledge of the incident and the fact that Parker was cleared of any wrongdoing, Fox Searchlight, the studio behind the project, issued a statement saying, “We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.” However in an additional story on Variety Monday afternoon, sources claimed “studio executives at Searchlight are assessing the fallout from a fresh round of stories about the incident on prominent news sites and African-American-targeted sites.
“The studio held a meeting on Monday morning with Parker’s team, and they are considering not granting new interviews with Parker from now until the movie debuts at the Toronto Film Festival in September. The hope is that by addressing the case well in advance of the movie’s festival run and October 7 debut, Parker can put it behind him by the time audiences get to see the movie.”
But is less than two months enough time to forget a rape accusation from 17 years ago? Of course the fact that Parker was cleared of all charges can’t be ignored, but neither can the reality that co-writer Celestin was initially found guilty. For his role in the matter, Celestin only had this to say: “This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of. I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career.”
Still, words like “I have since moved on” and “I can’t relive 17 years ago” don’t quite hold the same weight as “I didn’t rape anyone” and “I was found not guilty because I am not guilty,” and I’m frustrated that Parker didn’t use the latter two phrases and I want to know why.
This discovery is one that feels painful for us as a community. So much is riding on Birth of a Nation. From a historical context, you have the burden of accurately telling Nat Turner’s story and putting the African American experience of the time into proper perspective. In present day there’s the tremendous opportunity for a Black man to show he can compete with the old boy’s club of white writers, producers, and directors that dominate Hollywood, not to mention the facilitation of a much-needed and more open discussion about race in this country and the residual effects we still feel today. While it would be a shame for all of that to go down the drain because of acts that occurred 17 years ago, it’s also hard to turn a blind eye as a woman far too acquainted with low rape conviction rates.
Of course I don’t want Parker — or Celestin for that matter, though it seems too late for him– to be guilty of this heinous crime. But I also don’t want either to dismiss the severity of the accusation as merely something that happened in the past. The accusation is far too grave for that as well as the other response Parker gave regarding the criticisms he’s ensued not just for the rape trial but also having a white wife.
“My life will be examined and put under the microscope in ways that it never has. There are numerous things that are surfacing, but I’ve always been an open book. I’m an advocate of justice. I’m an older man. I’ve matured a lot. I’ve had many obstacles in my life. I grew up very poor. My father passed away. There are so many things that happened. At the same time, I am the man that I am. I am open to the scrutiny. I will never hide anything from my past.”
While that may be true, acknowledgement of an incident and an explanation of it are two different things and I think fans of Parker are hoping for more of the latter as it relates to this rape case specifically. The question is will forgoing such clarification affect numbers for Birth of a Nation at the box office. Where do you stand?