The 1999 rape case had been on Nate Parker’s Wikipedia page for some time, long before his project “The Birth of Nation” received an epic audience reception at Sundance and long before Fox Searchlight struck a record $17.5 million deal for rights to the film about preacher and slave Nat Turner who led a rebellion in 1831.
Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, who shares a story credit on the film, were Penn State wrestling teammates and roommates when they were tried for the alleged rape of an 18-year-old freshman who said she was unconscious. Parker maintained the encounter was consensual and was acquitted. Celestin was convicted and his verdict was later overturned on an appeal relating to ineffective counsel. Celestin was never retried. (The Daily Beast has a thorough breakdown of the particulars of the case.)
Now, the details and aftermath of the trial have resurfaced amid heightened media attention before the release of “The Birth of a Nation.” The Oscar contender is Parker’s passion project — he serves as star, director, producer and writer.
The court records, phone transcripts, accusations that Parker and Celestin later harassed the woman and the news reported Tuesday by Variety that the woman committed suicide in 2012 are now part of our ongoing debate about sexual assault — and have sparked a new one about how the case should affect our response to the film.
Moviegoers might want to support “The Birth of a Nation” for portraying an under-told story with (by all accounts) cinematic excellence, flipping the typical Hollywood “white savior” narrative and advancing a conversation about the horrors and legacy of slavery. But can a viewer pay money to see Parker’s movie without also grappling with this rape case?
This is a perennial question, whether art can be separated from the artist, and it’s particularly challenging when the artist is accused of something morally reprehensible — such as with Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen and R. Kelly. This question comes up more often these days, as celebrities are caught on camera or recorded, as technology has enabled rapid dissemination of old dirt, and as societal awareness, particularly around campus sexual assault and consent, has evolved.
Is praising or even seeing a work akin to declaring the innocence of its creator? Is that even a declaration a member of the public, not a juror in a criminal trial, is in a position to make?
Parker was acquitted of criminal charges after an October 2001 trial. He was not a party in a federal civil suit against Penn State that alleged the university failed to protect the woman from subsequent harassment by the wrestlers and their friends on campus, and that she had attempted suicide. The university settled.
Parker, who last week spoke at length about the trial with a Deadline reporter, posted a Facebook statement on Tuesday saying he had just learned of his rape accuser’s death and was “filled with profound sorrow.”
“I cannot — nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial. While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation,” Parker wrote, continuing: “I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name.”
Fox Searchlight has also stood behind Parker, and in a statement to Deadline said, “He was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”
The woman’s family said in a statement to the New York Times,”We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals.”
But the Times also spoke with the woman’s sister, who felt differently, saying, “These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”
The woman’s brother told Variety his position is that Parker was acquitted on a technicality. “His character should be under a microscope because of this incident,” the brother said. Then, referring to the movie, he said: “If you removed these two people, the project is commendable. But there’s a moral and ethical stance you would expect from someone with regard to this movie.”
Some have already decided against seeing Parker’s film, given the accusations, court records and woman’s suicide:
Nate Parker ruined Nate Parker for me not Nat Tuner, I'll just go find a good book on it
— MonsterKing (@CerromeRussell) August 16, 2016
As I said, if it's important for you to see the movie, do it. That's your choice. But don't try to justify it. No one has to agree with you.
— Ashley C. Ford (@iSmashFizzle) August 16, 2016
— Jamil Smith (@JamilSmith) August 16, 2016
Paying money to see “The Birth of a Nation” was already going to be a political statement. It’s now become a much more complicated one.
The movie is Parker’s star-making moment, with its box office success and Oscar prospects having long-lasting impacts on the actor’s pocketbook and career.
But the movie, which counts Oprah and Spike Lee as early supporters, has also taken on a broader significance. Its release comes as Hollywood receives intense criticism over its lack of diversity, among both the people making movies and the kinds of stories that get told. And while it’s a historic biopic, it has particular resonance today, as police brutality, institutional racism and social justice movements dominate national news.
All of that makes the issue of how to receive “The Birth of a Nation” even trickier. Similarly, the public reaction to sexual assault allegations against Bill Cosby meant more than just whether a talented and beloved comedian did horrible things. It also meant shunning the man who helped changed America’s views about black families, and that tension was on display with some of Cosby’s initial defenders, such as Jill Scott (she later reversed course).
Cosby’s case obviously differs in important ways. At least 60 women have accused the comedian of sexual assault or harassment between the 1960s and 2000s, with dozens saying Cosby allegedly drugged them. He now faces criminal charges for the first time.
For other artists embroiled in controversy, it can be easier for audiences to dismiss their work if it’s more trivial in nature. Take Woody Allen, who was investigated years ago amid accusations that he molested the daughter he adopted with Mia Farrow. He hasn’t faced criminal charges and has denied the allegations, while many prominent Hollywood figures, as well as the daughter, have said they believe he’s guilty. Allen’s films may be creatively groundbreaking, funny or critically acclaimed, but he’s not telling a story Hollywood has never told before or paving the way for a much needed national conversation.
Then there’s R. Kelly, who was acquitted of child pornography charges and has faced numerous allegations of sexually assaulting underage girls. People like R. Kelly’s music simply because it’s entertaining, aesthetically good or ironically funny — not because it’s profound. But the content of his work can make it difficult to ignore the allegations — his music is about sex. Some refuse to listen to it because they think he’s guilty.
Interacting with “The Birth of a Nation” feels different. Parker has called the project “a healing mechanism for America.” That’s a tall order.
Maybe if there were more films like it out there already, the stakes wouldn’t seem so high.