Without fail, one question always seems to arise when decades-old rape allegations (see: Bill Cosby) surface to the public: Why now? It’s the very question currently being asked by those in a state of shock and disbelief regarding The Birth of a Nation actor, co-writer and director Nate Parker’s past.
Seventeen years ago, a then 19-year-old Parker and his college roommate, Jean Celestin (co-writer of Birth of a Nation), were accused of raping an 18-year-old female student in their Penn State apartment. Parker, who after being kicked off Penn State’s wrestling team, transferred to the University of Oklahoma and was acquitted of the charges in a 2001 trial. Celestin, however, was given six to 12 months in prison after being convicted of sexual assault. Celestin would later be granted a new trial in 2005, but the victim chose not to testify again, so his guilty verdict was overturned and the case thrown out.
Asking why this case is being rehashed now is disturbing to say the least, and deflects from the seriousness of a complicated situation, one we’ve seen in some shape or form many times before. Not only does the question assume Parker’s innocence (just because he was exonerated doesn’t mean he’s not guilty), but it also suggests that the story of the now-deceased accuser, who took her own life at the age of 30 (her third known suicide attempt), would be believable if only the details had emerged sooner. As if her truth has an expiration date. As if the circumstances surrounding a woman’s alleged rape are always clear-cut and easily decipherable to a jury, media and the public at large – never mind the fact that victims of rape are often blamed for their own assault. As if prior sexual consent between a man and a woman makes up for the one time it wasn’t consensual. As if fear, shame, retaliation, and a host of other concerns most of us can only imagine don’t afflict victims of sexual assault. As if women are always believed from the jump when they report rape – if they report rape.
That woman’s death certificate stated that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse…” That woman, whose name is being protected by her family, never recovered. The rest of her short life was forever changed. And now, even post-mortem, her story is being second-guessed, and beyond the typical “Why now?” rhetoric.
But here’s the thing. The breaking of this news is not a ploy to bring down another successful Black man, as conspiracy theorists and staunch protectors of straight Black masculinity may suggest. Nate Parker will forever be marked and linked to this story. I find it hard to believe that Parker or anyone on his team thought otherwise. This is the kind of thing that does not get buried and it’s resurfacing now because of Parker’s newfound fame. Yes, he’s been around for a minute, but when your film is purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million at Sundance, the highest acquisition ever made at the prestigious festival, you’re going to get some attention. Not to mention all of the Oscar buzz that has been surrounding Birth of a Nation for months now, long before Oscar season. Clearly, Parker’s star has been on the rise and when you’ve got such a large spotlight on you, it’s searching for dark and less than flattering spots. If you knew what to search for, by the way, you could have found details about Parker’s case, as the information was on his Wikipedia pages for years. Now that same information is available on a much wider scale.
What about the belief that “they” (racists) don’t want the powerful story of Nat Turner to be told so they’re unearthing old news to cause problems? If anything, Fox Searchlight is scrambling like hell to save their investment and to validate the film they poured millions of dollars into. What about potential racial implications? Parker’s accuser was White and we’re all painfully aware of the instances in which Black men were falsely accused of rape and abuse by White women. But chances are, if Parker’s accuser were a Black woman, she might have faced similar circumstances either way. In fact, she might not have even reported the alleged rape to begin with.
All of this is complicated. It’s messy. It’s unsettling, and it’s very serious. At the end of the day, however, Nate Parker is going to be all right. But the same can’t be said of his accuser. All the more reason we shouldn’t be asking the unnecessary question: “Why now?”