(Philip Cheung for The Washington Post)

What happened after Nate Parker’s film career imploded

The ‘Birth of a Nation’ star and director has been mostly out of the public eye since 2016, when a rape charge from his college days resurfaced. He says he has grown and wants to do better. Will anyone believe him?

25 min


“All I see are the things I regret.”

On a 99-degree day in August, the actor and filmmaker Nate Parker sits on a Kelly green velvet couch in the living room of the house he shares with his wife, Sarah, and their five daughters, recalling one of many disastrous moments in 2016.

If Parker’s name rings a bell, it’s likely to be a distant one. In 2007, he was being called a young Denzel, having delivered a breakout performance in Washington’s “The Great Debaters.” In 2010, he was in the running to play the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in “Selma” (the role ultimately went to his friend David Oyelowo). In 2016, when he made his directorial debut with the period drama “The Birth of a Nation,” he embodied hope for a new, more-inclusive Hollywood.

Then, everything changed.

For the past six years, if Parker has been thought of at all, it’s been through the scrim of vaguely disturbing memories: an emerging director whose career was derailed when stories about a rape charge from his college days resurfaced, even though he’d been acquitted. A charismatic actor whose industry and public turned against him when his responses to those stories — rekindled more than a year before the downfall of Harvey Weinstein and the rise of the #MeToo movement — fell lamentably short. An unwitting avatar for famous men who would face their own personal and professional reckonings: initially defensive, then forced — out of self-interest, sincerity or some combination thereof — to contemplate where he went wrong.

And, now, a person who a cadre of friends and influential allies believes deserves a second chance. “I’ve watched him become someone I’m even more proud to call my friend now than six years ago,” Oyelowo says. “Even though I believe him when he says he didn’t do what he was accused of, I think it’s pretty clear he put himself in a situation that was very compromised, was not morally right, was not protective of [his accuser], and these are all things he can see clearly now.”

Parker insists that his understanding of guilt and innocence has evolved. “In my 42-year-old understanding, I can say without hesitation that, while I’m innocent of any criminal charges or acts, I can’t say that I didn’t do anything morally wrong,” he says.

But to some observers, his account of personal growth does not reflect the self-awareness necessary for true accountability. “I’m not sure Nate Parker deserves this platform,” says Sharon Loeffler, the older sister of Parker’s accuser. “This is nothing but a distraction, and it takes away from what we should really be talking about, which is overwhelming disdain for women being at an all-time high.”

Oyelowo, who has made Parker’s public rehabilitation something of a personal cause in recent years, initiated this exclusive interview, an invitation that was accepted only after Parker agreed that no conditions would be imposed and nothing would be off-limits. This is not a comeback story. It’s not a story about resolution or redemption. This is a story about someone in the middle of a process that, even at its most imperfect and unfinished, illuminates crucial questions facing Hollywood — and society at large — as people accused of past harms have been identified, called out and marginalized. Among those questions is whether there can ever be a path back and whether there should be a path back. If so, who decides what it should look like and when it’s complete?

And then there’s the most vexing question of all: When someone says they’ve changed, how can we know it’s genuine?

Regret and embarrassment

It’s difficult to overstate the initial rapturous reception of “The Birth of a Nation.” Parker’s film, about Nat Turner and the rebellion of enslaved people he led in 1831, had been a sensation at Sundance in January 2016, with Fox Searchlight paying a record $17.5 million for what the studio considered a surefire Oscar contender. The movie had electrified movie-industry insiders, who saw it as a much-needed corrective in the aftermath of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign aimed at exposing Hollywood’s racist and exclusionary culture.

The following summer, as the Oscar push for “The Birth of a Nation” was starting in earnest, stories began to circulate about an episode from Parker’s past.

In 1999, when he was a sophomore at Pennsylvania State University, Parker was accused of raping an 18-year-old freshman while she was intoxicated and allegedly unconscious. His friend and wrestling teammate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who would go on to share a story credit on “The Birth of a Nation,” was accused of assaulting the young woman along with Parker. Parker, who had had consensual sex with the woman before the incident, was found not guilty by a jury after being represented by a public defender. Celestin was found guilty, but his conviction was overturned on appeal and he was not retried. Their accuser later sued Penn State, saying it did not adequately protect her from the harassment and intimidation she said she suffered at the hands of Parker and Celestin; the university settled for $17,500. (Celestin could not be reached for comment.)

Parker responded to questions about the case during a Virginian-Pilot interview about “The Great Debaters.” As Washington Post reporter Elahe Izadi noted in 2016, the unsealed 1999 case was referred to on Parker’s Wikipedia page long before “The Birth of a Nation” made its debut. But, as the 2016 awards season got underway, more graphic and troubling details resurfaced, with a tragic postscript: Parker’s accuser had taken her own life in 2012, after a downward spiral that some of her family members have said started with her 1999 encounter with Parker and Celestin.

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When Parker heard of his accuser’s death, he expressed condolences in a Facebook post; just days earlier, he had conducted interviews with the trade outlets Variety and Deadline in an effort to address his past. But rather than grappling with that past honestly and self-critically, Parker was seen by many as alternately evasive, egotistical and manipulative. (He took his then-6-year-old daughter to one interview.) “[E]verything he says and does troubles me,” Roxane Gay wrote in the New York Times, referring to Parker’s habit of referring to the 1999 episode as a “painful moment” in his life. “Most of what he has to say about that ‘painful moment’ involves how he felt, how he was affected. The solipsism is staggering.”

Parker says he looks back at that period with “regret and embarrassment,” and adds, “So much of that environment was new, and unpredictable. I was struggling daily to understand what was happening.”

He takes one of what will be several long pauses.

“I thought in those moments, ‘Why can’t anyone empathize with me?’ Only to realize, as I’ve gone through this journey, that I had no empathy for those I had triggered, or survivors around the world that expected more, some of them my fans. Or my accuser.”

The word “journey” will come up often over the course of a 2½-hour interview and a nearly one-hour follow-up. It’s Parker’s word for an experience that started in 2017 as a quest for answers, but one he claims has deepened into something more meaningful and transformative. “The first wave was personal introspection, and then the second wave … was how to be intentional about doing something about my wrong behavior,” he says. “If I believed the way I approached [that behavior] was wrong, then what was I going to do to try to fix it?”

‘He became radioactive’

“The Birth of a Nation” limped through its theatrical release during the fall of 2016, earning mixed-to-positive reviews and a modest $15 million at the box office. Meanwhile, the debates surrounding Parker became a flash point for discussions of campus sexual assault, what constitutes agency and consent, separating art from the artist, and the complicated historical intersection of racism and sexism. The movie received no Oscar nominations. By the spring of 2017, Parker was at home, where, he says, “it got very quiet.”

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“He had become almost entirely isolated,” recalls Oyelowo, who has been close with Parker since they starred together in 2012’s “Red Tails.” “People who he had called friends or thought of as friends, desperate not to be caught on the wrong side of this, stopped calling. He became radioactive.”

With the phone that had rung incessantly now silent, Parker had little choice but to set career concerns aside and ruminate on his mistakes. He called Oyelowo and asked, “What do I do now?” Oyelowo had one answer: “I said, ‘Let’s go sit down with some people who I know will take my call, and let’s just go and listen.’ ”

The first person they contacted was Octavia Spencer, with whom they met for two hours at her home. The Oscar-winning actress “was very open and generous and forthright with her opinion,” Oyelowo says. “She expressed having been disappointed in some of what she saw [from Nate] but, as I anticipated … within those two hours, she saw Nate for who he actually is, as opposed to what had been projected into the world through sound bites and headlines.” (Spencer confirmed the meeting but did not respond to The Post’s requests for an interview.)

All of those early conversations were with women, Parker recalls, many of whom felt betrayed and upset by his indignant and self-protective stance during the “Birth of a Nation” rollout. “I began to understand that some of that anger [in 2016] was rooted in my silencing of [women] and their trauma,” he says. “I wasn’t thinking about who outside myself was being impacted by [my words], or feeling silenced.”

As Parker continued to pursue conversations, he saw that “a great majority of the people I was speaking to were survivors themselves,” he says. “I realized this is much closer to me than I anticipated. And then I started talking to people in my family, and realizing that there are people … very close to me that had experienced sexual assault, rape, violence. And the more I learned, the more I felt responsible. The more I felt ashamed.”

In 2018, Parker began consulting with an educator and activist who works in gender and racial justice and the prevention of violence against women. Through that individual, as well as his church, Parker contacted organizations in the Los Angeles area that work with victims of human trafficking, as well as domestic abuse and sexual violence.

“You don’t just walk through the doors of these places and say, ‘Sit me down with survivors,’ ” he says. “What actually happens, or what happened with me, was there was a series of conversations, or visiting sites where there are no survivors — until you realize that the very people who are touring you around are survivors themselves.” As he listened to the women’s stories, Parker says, lessons sank in “about the importance of bodily autonomy and self-determination, and what happens to people when those things are taken away from them. You hear about the disconnection from the world and relationships, and in some instances the disconnection from themselves.”

He began to make connections between his behavior as a 19-year-old and the stories he was hearing from survivors, he said. “When I think back to my 19-year-old self … I absolutely see how [the] rules around what is masculine, and what is acceptable and what is encouraged, create destructive environments,” he says. “When I think about what I would tell my 19-year-old self, I’d say, ‘Reject those rules.’ ”

Gradually, Parker began to offer his services as a volunteer with the organizations he had visited. “It’s not like a soup line,” he explains. “You email or text and say, ‘Is there anything that I can come and support, or anything I can do?’ ” His work, he says, “almost always involves funding.” Last month, Parker hosted a dinner at his home to help raise funds and awareness for a nonprofit organization that provides support and housing for survivors of human trafficking. At other times, he has collected “clothing or furniture, whatever can be done to create safe spaces for people. A lot of survivors have had to deal with foster care, have had to deal with a family dynamic that has either been nonexistent or broken apart.”

Social impact strategist Jotaka Eaddy, whose friendship with Parker started when they both volunteered for Barack Obama’s first presidential campaign and deepened when she worked for former NAACP president and CEO Ben Jealous, says she has seen “a lot of growth and evolution” in Parker in the past six years. “What I appreciate most about Nate has been his willingness to learn, his willingness to ask hard questions and, most importantly, be open to hard truths,” she says. “And he did it not for any gain but to be a better human.”

Men have a role to play

As compelling as Parker’s story is, certain aspects are impossible to corroborate: The educator/activist and organizations he says he’s been working with insist on remaining anonymous, to maintain privacy for their organizations, staff and the survivors with whom they work. Several times over the course of two interviews, Parker goes off the record, afraid that he’ll be seen as virtue signaling or sounding like a victim, but also concerned he’ll inadvertently destroy the trust he’s built. “One of the first things that was made clear to me with these organizations was that they were not interested in something that would be used to exploit them,” he says. “Until I’m asked publicly by one of these organizations, I will respect to the T their wishes. I will operate in such a way that I am invisible, outside of how I can be of service.”

Told of Parker’s volunteer work, Shaunna Thomas, a founder and the executive director of the domestic abuse survivors advocacy group UltraViolet, notes that “it’s exceedingly rare that we see people who have engaged in harmful behavior [engage in that work] in a way that isn’t about repositioning themselves for power.” But, she adds, “[t]hat doesn’t mean it couldn’t happen. … It’s good for men, especially, to see that they have a role to play, whether they’ve caused harm or not.”

It gets trickier when the focus shifts to the question of accountability, especially as it pertains to the events that brought Parker to this point: the early hours of Aug. 21, 1999, when he and Celestin allegedly assaulted an 18-year-old woman who was too intoxicated to give consent. Parker says that although he was found not guilty, he does not consider himself blameless. “I think there were a number of moral failures when I was 19, [including] that environment that I created, that were wrong,” he says. “And I deeply regret those things.”

Pressed about what “those things” were, Parker speaks of his accuser: “I failed her when it came to building her self-esteem, or recognizing in her insecurities that I could have supported her, rather than used those insecurities to … convince her to do things in the relationship that were solely beneficial to me. And I’m sorry for those things.”

Parker declines to go into any more detail when it comes to affirmatively stating what he did wrong in 1999, he says out of respect for his accuser’s memory. Although he adds he would like to apologize to her relatives, including for not properly expressing his condolences when he heard she had died, he has not taken steps to contact them. “The last thing I want to do is enter into the lives of her family members and create more pain rather than healing,” he says.

Loeffler is dubious. “My bar is high because of the aftermath I live in daily,” she says, referring to her sister’s experience at Penn State and the publicity surrounding her life and death. Loeffler believes the decades of stress have culminated in health issues that have left her unable to escape a toxic relationship and gain her independence, much like her sister. And she feels compelled to speak about the collective fallout. “My sister never would have hid,” she says. “She wanted justice and to be heard.”

When the person Parker admits that he harmed isn’t here to speak for herself, can there be real accountability? Experts in restorative justice — wherein someone who has been harmed meets with the person who harmed them to receive acknowledgment, validation and an apology — insist that there are options.

Alissa Ackerman, a sex crimes expert and a professor of criminal justice at California State University at Fullerton — and a rape survivor herself — has often used a vicarious form of restorative justice when a perpetrator or victim is unable or unwilling to participate. In those sessions, someone who experienced a similar harm volunteers to be a proxy.

“We help them name [the harm they caused]; we help them write an actual amends,” Ackerman says of working with perpetrators. Told of Parker’s situation, she says, “I would work for months before he ever sat down with a survivor, and make sure he really understands the work.”

Asked whether he thinks a similar process might be useful in addressing the personal moral failings to which he has referred, Parker takes another long pause. “I’d have to think more about the question to give you an answer that’s helpful,” he says.

A change in focus

Parker has been mostly absent from Hollywood since 2016 — he fired his management and publicity team that year — but managed to direct two more movies. “American Skin,” in which he stars as the father of a victim of a police shooting, premiered in 2019 at the Venice Film Festival, where Spike Lee supported Parker at a news conference for the film. In 2020, Parker made “Solitary,” starring Oyelowo as a former convict reentering society after spending several years in solitary confinement. Parker insists that this interview is not timed to help the film, which has yet to find a distributor. “Who knows what’s going to happen with ‘Solitary’ ”? he says. “And to be honest with you, I only care because of David.”

Indeed, Oyelowo seems to be the driving force behind what he clearly hopes will be Parker’s reentry: This year, he took Parker to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences Governors Awards dinner and the Oscars ceremony. In July, Eaddy arranged a Zoom meeting between Oyelowo and Parker and a group of African American female leaders to gauge their receptivity to Parker’s story.

The 18 women who wound up pledging their support include the experienced political hands and civic leaders Donna Brazile, Minyon Moore, Karen Finney, and the Revs. Leah Daughtry and Bernice King, part of a close-knit network of influential Black women in the worlds of civil rights advocacy, strategic communications and politics.

When he met with the women by video link last summer, Parker read an unpublished op-ed in which he expressed regret for his “tone-deaf response and narrow perspective” in 2016. “The change in me over these past years has been in shifting my focus from myself to survivors,” he wrote, saying that as a 19-year-old college student, “I had relationships, particularly with my accuser, that were no doubt psychologically toxic, opportunistic, and self-serving. For this I am incredibly regretful and deeply sorry. You can be innocent of legal wrongdoing and still be wrong.” He also wrote that he has a new understanding of “the dearth of instruction given to college men about how to dignify their even casual relationships with women by unequivocally respecting the importance of fluid consent.”

The group was impressed. “I found it very meaningful, and his authenticity made me want to help,” Finney says, adding that everyone on the call was similarly affected. “He’s talented, he’s someone who’s committed to using his art to shine a light on really important issues, and he’s someone who’s trying to be vulnerable and open.”

Another woman, a sexual assault survivor who spoke with Parker after she read his op-ed, says she found it significant that Parker acknowledged that “while he may have been acquitted, there are still things he has regrets for. … I think it takes a lot of humility and self-reflection and a lot of personal accountability for someone to admit that they may have made a mistake. You don’t always get to hear that from people who are accused.”

Oyelowo says his support of Parker is both professionally and personally motivated. He calls Parker “easily in my top five directors I’ve ever worked with,” and he wants him to be part of Hollywood again. But more important, he says, “I’ve hated to see how much he was struggling, not just financially but emotionally. He would hate me saying this, because he doesn’t want anyone to think he’s looking for sympathy. But it’s been tempestuous. And as a friend, when you see that, you just want it to stop. But the journey had to take the time it needed to take, and now I think he’s beyond ready to be edifying as opposed to erosive.”

Few would doubt Oyelowo’s sincerity in coming to the aid of a friend who, he believes, deserves to be redeemed. But few can ignore the fact that Oyelowo happens to star in his friend’s film, which is in need of a distributor. Contradictions are rife in a story that changes with every lens one brings to it: Parker is engaged in a deeply private process of introspection that, once it becomes public, almost immediately becomes suspect as an attempt at career rehabilitation. There are moments, listening to Parker, when the line between good faith and outright credulity feels perilously thin. He is, after all, a good actor.

And he has apologized before: in 2016 and, most recently, in Venice in 2019, when he expressed regret, using much of the same language he’s using now. What’s different this time? “Just more learning,” Parker says. “More listening and more hearing. I think that’s going to be the constant, real-time evolution.”

Alexandra Brodsky, a civil rights lawyer, the author of “Sexual Justice” and a founder of Know Your IX, a nonprofit organization combating gender violence in schools, says that in some ways, celebrities “are the worst people to sort out these hard questions with” because the public dynamics at play are unique and inapplicable to most people’s lives. In many cases, she adds, repair is effective precisely because it happens quietly and in private.

Scott Berkowitz, the founder and president of the anti-sexual-violence organization RAINN, says celebrities can be valuable leaders, especially in educating college students about sexual misconduct and consent. But in Parker’s case, he says, “I don’t know how he becomes a credible spokesperson for others if he still won’t acknowledge and be specific about what he believes he did wrong.”

Evaluating Parker’s words and deeds is even more complicated within the current context of public apology and comebacks. On a spectrum that includes Will Smith’s misfire of an apology video after his Oscars slap and Louis C.K. winning a Grammy and going back on tour after admitting to masturbating in front of female colleagues, is it possible to find a form of genuine penance that doesn’t feel performative? Or is a public life a reasonable sacrifice in the name of repair? It’s true that few deserve to be defined by their most grievous errors, especially if they were made at 19. It’s also true that nobody is entitled to money, fame or a green light from a studio. And no one can know the full impact of this country’s racial politics, from the historical use of rape accusations as a weapon of terror against Black men to who gets the benefit of the doubt in Hollywood.

Debate around what constitutes authentic contrition “is a sign of how unclear we are as a society, about what it means to take responsibility for something, and what we’re looking for,” says David Karp, the director of the Center for Restorative Justice at the University of San Diego’s School of Leadership and Education Sciences. “What I need to see is just going to be different from what you need to see, and we should honor those differences. But it’s also just a mess, because we have no other references for what accountability means but the punitive model.”

“No one said this is going to be easy,” says Brodsky, who agrees that restorative justice is a good model. But, she adds, “[t]his doesn’t end with you being a hero. This ends up with you maybe having repaired some of the harm that you caused, but maybe you don’t wind up having a career in Hollywood.”

Wherever the path leads

Loeffler is deeply skeptical that a story about Parker can be useful. “I’ve found that asking women what men need to do, like asking survivors and victims how to get it right so he can have forgiveness, is the ultimate example of feigning incompetence to deflect responsibility,” she says. “Answering any questions, or giving it any attention, is self-defeating because it is, again, making women responsible for a man’s behavior.”

Loeffler adds: “What happened to my sister happened because of systems that benefit male athletes and program us to believe that men are more competent, honest and trustworthy. With the MeToo movement backlash, including the programming of young men through online content that they are inherently superior to women, we should be giving all our attention to the fact that we are standing at an inflection point that will determine the outcome of women, and humanity.”

Parker sounds as if he knows that criticism is inevitable. “One of the things I’ve learned on this journey is that I can only control the things I can control,” he says. “Six years ago I was trying to control what people thought of me. I fought to stand in my truth, even when it meant ignoring the pains and hurts of others that had been impacted by my behaviors. Six years later, I’m clear that I’m not fighting for anything self-serving.”

He rises from the couch to give a tour of the house, pointing out a bookcase he built, as well as the backyard treehouse he put up for his children when the phone stopped ringing. He talks about the Nate Parker Foundation, which he established in 2015 to mentor young people in visual storytelling, and he mentions that he wants to share what he’s learned with adolescents and teens so that they don’t internalize the same messages about masculinity he did as a boy — about entitlement and sexual conquest, impunity and strength. “I do think a digestible version of this work, introduced very early in the lives of young men, could really shape their value system,” he says. “And I don’t know of any systems that exist that do that. Does it have to take a tragedy to learn these things?”

Parker rests his eyes on the San Gabriel Mountains baking in the distance. It’s as if he’s contemplating his own path — one on which he insists he’ll stay, wherever it leads. Whether it will be a path back is not for him to decide.

Alice Crites and Magda Jean-Louis contributed to this report.