Nate Parker’s controversial movie Birth of a Nation was finally released in theaters this weekend and is so far a huge flop, earning a mere $7 million. Best believe that none of those dollars were mine.
When I initially saw the trailer, I was ecstatic. I imagined getting all of my friends together and having a joyful viewing party at the movies. Finally, representation! I thought to myself. Finally, a black person getting funded by Hollywood to tell an important historical story of bravery and resistance rather than victimhood. I was happy to hear about Parker’s critical acclaim and I was ready to support his creation. Nat Turner’s organization of the largest slave rebellion in U.S. history was a film narrative that was long overdue, and I was glad that a black person was directing it.
My excitement began to wane when I heard murmurings of rape allegations. To protect my support for the movie, I was careful not to delve into or investigate this issue, because I instinctively knew that I wouldn’t like what I found out. So I remained neutral and willfully ignorant in order to salvage my desire to support the film (Shameful, I know).
I began to hear bits and pieces of the story through word of mouth, and eventually, I had no choice but to do my own research to get the scoop. In a nutshell, Nate Parker, along with the co-writer of Birth of A Nation, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping an 18-year-old white girl at Penn State University in 1999. According to court documents, the young woman was drunk and went back to Parker’s place because Parker stated she was too drunk to go home. The woman testified that she woke up to Nate Parker and Celestin having sex with her. Afterwards, she stated that she did not consent to having sex and was too drunk to be aware of her surroundings. Parker was acquitted due to the technicality that he and the woman had previously engaged in consensual sexual activity, while Celestin was found guilty. His verdict was later overturned.
In a police-recorded phone call, Parker showed no remorse: “You sure didn’t seem drunk that night.” Celestin also spoke to her, and told her he “had done nothing wrong to apologize for.” To make matters worse, Parker and Celestin’s accuser went on to commit suicide in 2012.
Even though the law protected Parker and Celestin, their innocence remains questionable, due to the issue of consent. When is it okay to have sex with someone who cannot make coherent judgement, or worse, is passed out? The answer is: Never. The activity in question is no longer considered sex, but rape.
Parker doesn’t see it that way. Almost 20 years after the incident, suicide and all, Parker has maintained the same unapologetic and unaccountable attitude he had back in 1999. In last week’s interview on Good Morning America, he spoke to Robin Roberts with hostility, stating: “I was falsely accused … I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.”
There are many levels to this issue. First, can we separate the artist from their art? We did with Roman Polanski, creator of Rosemary’s Baby, a movie that received critical acclaim even though Polanski was a known rapist and pedophile. Many people argue that holding Parker up to high scrutiny is fundamentally racist because other rich and and famous white men have gotten away with similar actions. Would Parker have been dragged through the coals in the same way if he were white? Probably not, and yet his unapologetic and arrogant attitude towards this scandal has him digging his own grave.
Birth of a Nation co-star Gabrielle Union is a rape survivor who understands why people are boycotting the movie. In a Los Angeles Times op-ed she opened up about the inner turmoil this scandal has caused her:
“My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control. It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice. It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen — other survivors, or even potential perpetrators.”
Additionally, it’s incredibly disturbing that Parker and Celestin remained so close even after such a horrific incident. So much so, that they went on to create a body of work titled Birth of a Nation, no doubt playing off the title of the original film, which explored the commonly held white fear of black men raping white women. The fact that Parker’s and Celestin’s professional and personal relationship flourished so much that it created a new interpretation of this particular work, in spite of (or quite possibly because of) their shared experience of being accused of raping a white woman is sick, to say the least.
I believe in the capacity for human transformation and the power of forgiveness. People have the right to do wrong and atone for their mistakes. However, Parker’s attitude about the allegations seems to be the same now as it was in 1999, and I cannot and will not protect, support, or uplift him for this — even if he is a black artist. I will not use the issue of racial fairness to excuse rape. That is why I can’t separate Parker’s actions from his body of work.
If Parker had checked his toxic masculinity at the door and used this incident to engage in a new conversation about consent and the way the issues of racial and gender oppression intersect, I (and many others) would have stood beside him. Had he shown any vulnerability or remorse, rather than violently communicating his innocence and blamelessness, he would have had my support. Unfortunately, his ego got the best of him — and Nat Turner’s film legacy as well.