There’s No Way I Can Support Nate Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation”
When I first saw the words rape and Nate Parker in the same sentence I thought he was speaking on the Stanford rape case or some other infamous rape case. I figured since the story was being tweeted about, he’d probably said something side-eye worthy. After all, it wouldn’t have been the first time.
But when I clicked to see the “ridiculous comments” he made, not only did I find the comments I was looking for, I also noticed that the rape case folks were talking about, was Nate’s.
In case you missed it, over the weekend Ashley Monae wrote about a 1999 rape case against the actor, writer and director. But I’ll summarize quickly. According to Variety, in 1999 Parker was a student and wrestler at Penn State University when he and his friend Jean Celestin were accused of raping a 20-year-old, fellow student in Parker’s apartment. Both Parker and the woman acknowledged that they had consensual sex with each other before. But the young woman said that, on the night of the assault, she was unconscious and did not consent to have sex with either Parker or Celestin.
According to court documents, which I encourage you to read, Parker was eventually acquitted of the charges based on the fact that he and the alleged victim had had sex on a previous occasion. Celestin though was found guilty and sentenced to 6-12 months in prison. The mandatory sentence for rape at the time was 3-6 years but the judge departed from that sentence because of the letters that were written on Celestin’s behalf, some of them from officials at the university.
Celeste applied for a retrial and in 2005, the case was thrown out because the young lady did not want to testify again.
The rape is troubling enough. But it’s what happened afterward that is also disturbing. In these same court documents, after they were accused, arrested and then released, the university took no action against Parker and Celestin except suspending them from the wrestling team. According to the alleged victim’s report, Parker and Celestin “began an organized campaign” to harass her. The two hired a private investigator who showed a photo of the young woman to students on campus, asking for information about her. In doing so, the private investigator exposed her identity to her peers and her alleged rape was publicized. As a result, the young woman became a target on campus and was no longer able to eat or socialize in public areas.
Not only that, she accused both Parker and Celestin of standing outside her classrooms and following her to her dorm. They enlisted the help of their friends to direct sexual epithets toward her as she matriculated throughout campus. Though she reported the incidents to the University and campus police, they took no action. After attempting suicide on at least two different occasions, the woman dropped out of school. She went on to sue the university and was awarded $17,500 in a settlement.
Parker and Celestin went on to write, direct, star in and produce an award-winning film that secured a huge budget from Fox Searchlight.
And I know y’all read Parker’s comments before, but I think they’re so interesting they bear repeating.
He told Variety:
“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. 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” — he took a long silence — “I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now. 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.”
And then, as a bit of a rationalization.
“Look at it through the context of 17 years,” he said. “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.”
I can’t be the only one who finds his comments odd. If I were accused of something I didn’t do, I would say, vehemently, that I didn’t do it. I mean, being cleared by this country’s justice system isn’t all that telling. George Zimmerman was cleared. Darren Wilson was cleared. The Stanford swimmer, a rapist, was basically cleared. And while the aforementioned people all posess the “get-out-of-jail-free” card that is Whiteness, the same privilege is often extended to men, regardless of race, when it comes to rape cases. The crime is just not taken or prosecuted seriously. There are thousands of rape kits that go untested. There are far too many judges who ignore mandatory sentencing mandates when it comes to sexual assault. Even police officers try to intimidate or insinuate to women reporting their rapes that there was something they’d done to deserve their assault. Hell, some of the police officers are the ones raping these women.
That’s not enough.
Furthermore, Parker mentioned the number 17, five times as if the passage of time was a rationalization for something. “Look at it through the context of 17 years.” I’m sorry what does that mean? Rape 17 years ago is still rape. Its affects don’t have an expiration date. It affects people more than people may know or understand. In 2012, the alleged victim took her own life, at 30-years-old, leaving behind a son. In an interview with Variety, her brother Johnny said that he watched his sister’s life slowly crumble after the 1999 incident. He placed quite a bit of blame on Penn State’s handling of the situation but also spoke about the justice system at that time. “He may have litigated out of any kind of situation. My position is he got off on a technicality… I think by today’s legal standards, a lot has changed with regards to universities and the laws in sexual assault,” he said. “I feel certain if this were to happen in 2016, the outcome would be different than it was. Courts are a lot stricter about this kind of things. You don’t touch someone who is so intoxicated–period.”
Parker mentions growth and maturity as if there was indeed something he needed to grow and mature from. He says he’s an advocate of justice and believes in leading with love. But what does that mean in the context of the question at hand?
The part that tripped me out the most was “I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.” What does that mean? If there were no crime committed, what exactly would he need to relive?
And then, I wonder how he and Celestin were able to move on as partners. By Parker’s logic, since Celestin was found guilty, it must mean he did indeed rape the young woman. How was he able to continue working with a convicted rapist? But forget that. We know that at one point or another, Parker and this woman did have consensual sex. They’ve both admitted that much. So Parker didn’t have an issue with his current partner sleeping with the very same woman he had? All of it is just strange.
And Fox Searchlight knew Parker’s comments were strange. It’s the reason that they’ve altered the way The Birth of a Nation is being promoted. They initially planned for Parker to speak at churches and colleges to drum up buzz for the film. Now, they’re taking a “hold off” approach. And Parker is no longer doing press for the film. Because while Parker said he is not ashamed of his past, he certainly didn’t handle the questions well. And in the meantime, Fox is waiting. Waiting to see if people care about the rape and death of a woman from 17 years ago.
As for the victim’s brother, he believes the decision of whether or not the movie should be supported is “up to the people.” Johnny said, “I don’t think a rapist should be celebrated. It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.”
There was a third man who left the apartment after he realized what was going on. You can read his account of the evening below.
You can also read a conversation between Nate and the woman after the incident here. Again, very telling.
Veronica Wells is the culture editor for MadameNoire.com. She is also the author of the recently released book “Bettah Days.”