I don't need to give you a run down on Nate Parker, but for the five people uninformed of his current cultural relevancy: Parker co-wrote, produced, directed, and stars in The Birth of A Nation, a biography of Nat Turner, an infamous enslaved worker and preacher, who led a massive slave revolt in 1831. The film premiered at Sundance at the beginning of the year, and was purchased for $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight. It is the most expensive purchase in the festival's history.
The Birth of A Nation debuts in theatres Oct. 7, which is why Parker sat with Variety for an exclusive interview about a troublesome topic, two months before the press run really revs up. In 1999, as a student at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin-- the co-writers of The Birth of A Nation-- were charged with raping an unconscious 20-year-old female student while she visited their apartment.
Parker was exonerated, mostly because he'd had previous consensual sex with the woman in question, as if a "yes" once (or however many times) is a "yes" forever. Celestin was convicted of rape and served six months in jail. According to the Variety article, he appealed the verdict, and a second trial was thrown out because the victim didn't want to testify again. Variety notes that the woman later sued the university and received a $17,500 settlement.
The Variety interview is creepy, to put it mildly. Parker refers to the rape accusation/trial as "a very painful moment in my life". He cites the obstacles he's had in his life: "I grew up very poor. My father passed away. There are so many things that happened." He adds he is "an advocate of justice. I'm an older man now. I've matured a lot." He also mentions his wife and five daughters. Twice. Finally he says, "I have since moved on."
I'm deeply attached to Parker's body of work. I also think (thought?) he is (was?) awesome. And I'm unsettled that my initial internal dialogue after reading the his interview was to "protect" the upcoming film and Parker with "this shouldn't detract from the film"' and "it was 17 years ago and it was college" or "do you really expect him to confess to a rape where he was exonerated? Like what do you want him to say?" Or "I want to hear her side."
I sounded exactly like the Bill Cosby apologists, whose arguments in his defense were disturbing. And that's deeply troublesome for me.
"Let's be 100: despite the verdict in the case, it sounds like Parker had a very inappropriate sexual encounter, despite being exonerated. "
While I'm sure some reporter is currently digging thru old cases and working the phones to find the woman at the center of this case, I don't need to hear her side. The way Parker leans on "I was exonerated" and his troublesome family history, and how a rape charge affected his life tells me a lot about who he was as a man then and perhaps worse, the shortcomings of his perspective now.
Even creepier? The transcript of a "third" party and eye-witness, Tamerlane Kangas. He was a friend of the guys, who was invited into the room the night Parker and his roommate had sex with a passed out girl. He declined and left the apartment. "I didn't believe that four people at one time was -- you know, it didn't seem right," he testified.
Yes, this happened 17 years ago, and Parker and his roommate were in college and they were young and dumb. But all college guys are young and dumb and all college guys and/or young and dumb boys and men don't rape, ie, Kangas.
There's a call for black women to boycott The Birth of A Nation, so as not support Parker and his co-writer. It's similar to what happened with Straight Out of Compton over the rampant misogyny of NWA's lyrics, the omission of the violence toward Dee Barnes and Ice Cube's ignorant remarks during the press tour. (FYI: I saw it in the theatre).
"Rape is a horrible crime. And Parker's lack of accountability about his past actions is unsettling. "
Let's be 100: despite the verdict in the case, it sounds like Parker had a very inappropriate sexual encounter, despite being exonerated. The stated reason he got off--she said "yes" before-- is an archaic perception of consent. (Don't start with "well, the courts said..." because we know the justice system isn't 100 percent reliable: see Rodney King officers, George Zimmerman, R. Kelly and the deaths of Sandra Bland, Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, etc.) Parker, it seems, has never been held accountable for the crime.
That said, it's been 17 years since this happened. Should that change our perspective on Parker? On our willingness to support The Birth Of A Nation? I honestly don't know. I'm conflicted. Holding on to a man's actions from 17 years ago is excessive. I certainly wouldn't want to be judged for things I've done in a far shorter time span. But am I being reasonable, or am I making detestable Cosby-esque excuses for Parker because I'm impressed he created a film I deem important? Because I fell in awe of who he represented in The Great Debaters and Beyond the Lights? ? If so, that's disgusting.
Rape is a horrible crime. And Parker's lack of accountability about his past actions is unsettling. And I don't know what he could have said that would make him sound any better. Did I really expect him to say, "yeah, I raped her" about a crime he was exonerated for? (I wouldn't) Did I really expect him to apologize publicly for an act he wasn't found guilty of? (I wouldn't.) What, if anything, could he do now to make this situation "right", or just more palatable? I don't know that either. And it really, really bothers me.