In a recent interview with Variety, The Birth of a Nation writer/director/actor Nate Parker described his rape trial as “a very painful moment in my life” which “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.
A week later, as more details from the case against Parker and his friend/Nation co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin have become public, conversation about Parker has shifted from amazement and ardor over his potential Academy Award-bound film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion to people’s inability to separate his work from perceptions of Parker. The trial resulted in Parker being found not guilty — under murky circumstances and speculation that previous consensual sex with the victim played a role — and Celestin being convicted of sexual assault, sentenced, and his conviction later overturned (appeal on the grounds of ineffectual counsel granted). The retrial didn’t continue, purportedly because the victim refused to testify again (some reports claim the prosecution thought they wouldn’t be able to round up all witnesses again). Additionally, the victim claimed Parker and Celestin waged a harassment campaign against her after she pressed charges; this led to The Women’s Law Project bringing suit and winning a judgment against Penn State university for failing to protect her.
AFI has canceled a planned Nation screening and Q & A with the filmmaker, and Oscar voters (and others) are already debating over whether or not to even see the movie. Statements by Al Sharpton and Harry Belafonte indicate that some think the resurfacing of allegations and Parker’s subsequent trial are an attempt to suppress The Birth of a Nation‘s ascent and to discredit Parker because he is black. Variety claims they’ve been told Parker is “very low,” and inclined to believe there is a Hollywood conspiracy against him or that it’s just “bad luck:”
He’s disappointed over the backlash on social media and that the African-American online community hasn’t been more supportive. And he’s even mad at himself, for underestimating the public’s interest in a court case that happened so long ago.
Personally, I see a couple of very important factors at play here, and neither reeks of conspiracy. Number one: some of Parker’s own comments (he “experienced a painful moment”) about the assault charges, and how he refers to the incident is detached and unsympathetic to anyone but himself. As news that the victim had committed suicide became public, Parker made a non-apology that spoke of his personal growth and change and mentions his daughters, but he still never says he’s sorry for what happened. Even if we assumed Parker and Celestin to both be completely innocent, there should be an awareness that he participated in an event that not all parties agree was consented to, and that they mercilessly harassed the woman involved and that, at least in part, her life ended as a result of what happened. From his language, one is left questioning Parker’s empathy and his ability to take responsibility for his role in that event:
I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope. What do I do? When you have a certain level of success, when things start to work, things go under the microscope and become bigger and bigger things. I can’t control people; I can’t control the way people feel.
You say that you were all this drunk. I really didn’t know that you were all that drunk. I’m not, that’s what I’m saying. I can’t control your drinking and I I’m I’m don’t know exactly how drunk you were. I don’t know. I was drinking, you were drinking, everyone was drinking. [Parker]
Pieces of testimony, including that of a third man — Tamerlane Kangas — who declined Parker’s alleged wave inviting him and Celestin to join Parker in the room with the victim, and Kanga’s statement to Celestin: “No, you don’t want to go inside that room.”
From The Daily Beast report:
Kangas said Jennifer didn’t see them or say a word. Her arms weren’t moving, he said; her legs were pressed to her chest, her feet propped in the air.
“We went out into the hallway and Jean said, ‘Let’s go inside the room,’ and then I said, ‘No, you don’t want to go inside the room,’ and then after that we went back into the doorway and he walked into the room,” Kangas testified. “Shortly after that—or he got undressed and stood towards the head side of the futon and shortly after that I left.
“I personally didn’t go into the room because I wasn’t attracted to Jennifer and I didn’t believe that four people at one time was—you know, it didn’t seem right,”
Kangas told The Daily Beast that he fled from the apartment that evening.
“I made a decision not to stay,” he said. “The whole situation in general, whatever was going on, was just not me. It’s just not who I am.
“I just felt like it was a bad place to be and I didn’t want to be there,” Kangas added. “I took myself out of the situation.”
The reality of the backlash against Nate Parker in 2016 is that the public — not “Hollywood” — is responding to what they are reading in official statements and court transcripts. There is enough cause in the accounts to believe the victim was drinking heavily prior to meeting up with Parker and Celestin and returning to Parker’s apartment, that we have reason to question her consciousness and ability to consent. The case was made that after charges were brought against Parker and Celestin, the pair continuously intimidated and harassed the victim, after which she was relocated in on-campus housing, dropped out of Penn State, and made multiple suicide attempts. Whether or not justice was served, the picture painted is an ugly one; one we can’t quite reconcile in our brains as we read through all the accounts,and, in light of the explosion of college campus sexual assaults — especially involving athletes who are often protected by universities and the communities they’re in — we have a need to try to understand what happened. Both Parker and Celestin were on the wrestling team, and the judge who sentenced Celestin did not impose the mandatory sentence (purportedly due to letters of support, including from Penn State officials). The world choosing to embrace The Birth of a Nation for its story or quality is, for me, a separate issue, but the focus on Parker is there with due cause, and his case is pertinent to the important ongoing discussion of campus rape, the treatment of victims, and the accountability that must be required of our schools.