Nate Parker has been in the news a lot lately. The celebrated writer, actor and director has been lauded for his directorial debut of the film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a successful slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. In addition to directing, Parker also co-wrote and co-produced the incontrovertibly significant film. The picture debuted at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival to high praise where it made history by being the most paid for Sundance production after Fox Searchlight Pictures obtained its distribution rights for $17.5 million. The movie has already begun to receive Oscar buzz, with Parker traveling the world promoting it ahead of the upcoming Awards season. However, this is not the only reason Parker’s name has come up so frequently over the past few months; after earning respect from some of the most major players in the entertainment industry, reports of rape charges filed against him in 1999, and the subsequent trial that followed, have resurfaced, leading many to question the true character of the man behind the public persona. Parker has made it clear he doesn’t want to talk about it.
When Parker was a sophomore at Penn State University in 1999, he and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a young woman while she was intoxicated. Both young men were wrestlers for the school, and both were charged and tried for the alleged crime. The victim stated she did not know how many people were involved in the assault, but was sure Parker and Celestin were. In addition, she claimed the two continually harassed her after she filed charges against them by hiring a private investigator to follow her around and show her picture on campus, allowing fellow students to identify her as the accuser. She also claimed when the PI would see her on campus, he would point her out by yelling, “There goes the white girl crying rape!” Both Parker and Celestin are black and the victim was white. Parker was ultimately acquitted of the four charges against him; Celestin, who co-wrote The Birth of a Nation with Parker, was found guilty and received a sentence of two to four years, which was later rescinded on appeal. In August of 2016, the victim’s brother told Variety that his sister had committed suicide in 2012 as a result of the sexual assault.
The film itself contains a brutal rape scene, which is purportedly what prompted members of the media to begin asking questions of Parker about his past, though he has continued to deflect attention away from his personal life in an attempt to redirect the public’s focus on the movie instead. While in Toronto over the weekend, Parker was asked to respond to movie-goers who have stated they will not see the film based on his past allegations. Rather than answer directly, he instead spoke about the many people involved in the process of making the motion picture, with 10 of the featured actors present on stage with him. He said, in part, “I would say: You know I’ve addressed it; I’m sure in future forums I will address it more. There’s no one person who makes a film…I would encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person. There was never one person [on the film]. We did our best to create an atmosphere where everybody felt included.” However, Gabrielle Union, one of the stars of the movie whose character is savagely raped, in an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times wrote, “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said “no,” silence certainly does not equal “yes.” Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a “no” as a “yes” is problematic at least, criminal at worst.”
It has become a far too common misapprehension about what consent means and how we, as a society, seemingly choose to continually neglect the importance of honest and frank discussions about rape culture in this country. No one is above or below the consequences of sexual violence committed against women (and men) on a minute-by-minute basis, yet we appear to give celebrities a pass time and again simply because they are rich and famous. Roman Polanski admittedly drugged and raped a 13-year-old girl at his home in 1977, yet actors still clamor to work with him. (Polanski fled the country to avoid facing charges for his crime.) Woody Allen has been accused of molesting one of his biological children (prior to marrying his much younger adopted daughter Soon-Yi Previn), yet continues to be heralded as one of the greatest directors in history, always able to attract an enviable cast of actors. Over 50 women have accused Bill Cosby of rape, yet many refuse to believe it could be true (even though he has admitted to drugging women for the sake of having sex with them) because he was the TV dad of their childhood dreams. Where does it end?
When do we stop applauding and start holding accountable instead? Just because Nate Parker was found not guilty doesn’t mean the woman, whom he admitted to having sexual relations with, didn’t endure tremendous pain and suffering as a result of their encounter. We’ve seen the justice system fail all too often; I’m not saying it did in this case, but at some point, we need to start removing our blinders and open our eyes a little wider. And not just when it comes to celebrities, athletes, politicians, etc. Sexual violence thrives on silence. It’s time to speak up and speak out.