The turnout at Thursday’s vigil was modest, and analysts have predicted that the ongoing controversy plaguing the movie’s director, writer and star Nate Parker — who was accused of rape as a college student in 1999, and later acquitted — isn’t likely to put much of a dent in in the movie’s box office success. But the circle of solemn activists outside the ArcLight Cinemas was nonetheless a stark reminder that Parker’s highly anticipated biopic remains deeply entangled with his own personal history.
The goal of the vigil wasn’t to protest or demand a boycott, Cizek said, but simply to recognize and “make space” for survivors of sexual assault. Though she has decided not to see the movie, she said she knows others might make a different choice. And as a woman of color, she said, she shares the desire to see more diverse representation on the big screen.
“I do believe that [the film] could be something that could be very powerful for some, and I don’t want to take that away from them,” she said. “But even if they do choose to see it, I want them to understand who else is affected by this film.”
Parker’s film — a historical drama based on the story of Nat Turner’s bloody 1831 slave uprising — had been highly touted earlier this year as a timely consciousness-raising Oscar contender. At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Fox Searchlight purchased it in a record-breaking $17.5 million deal.
But the buzz has since been overshadowed by the outcry surrounding a 17 year-old rape case involving Parker and longtime friend Jean McGianni Celestin, who co-wrote “The Birth of a Nation.”
The two men were wrestling teammates and roommates at Penn State when they were charged with raping an 18-year-old freshman, who said she had passed out after drinking too much and was incapable of giving consent. Parker, who had previously had consensual sex with the woman, was acquitted at trial. Celestin was convicted, but his verdict was later overturned, and he was never retried. Their accuser alleged that Parker and Celestin repeatedly harassed her after she came forward, and she successfully sued Penn State for failing to protect her.
The scandal resurfaced in August, when Variety reported that Parker’s accuser had struggled with mental health issues after the assault and, after several attempts, committed suicide in 2012.
The revelation sparked an immediate backlash across social media; several prominent feminists, including writer Roxane Gay, stated that they would not see the film.
“I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity,” Gay wrote in an essay in the New York Times.
The film itself has been met with mixed reviews; The Washington Post’s Ann Hornaday called it “a flawed but fairly compelling chapter of the American story,” awarding it two and a half stars. Vinson Cunningham of The New Yorker was less compelled, writing that the film didn’t deserve its defenders: “It’s hard even to call it a successful attempt at propaganda,” he said. Matt Zoller Seitz of RogerEbert.com gave the movie two stars; New York Times critic A.O. Scott wrote that “the movie, uneven as it is, has terrific momentum and passages of concentrated visual beauty.”
Over the past many weeks, Parker has been working feverishly to make amends with the public and shift attention back to his film. But his efforts haven’t proven successful; in recent media appearances, Parker has appeared both emotional and defiant, tearfully referring to the episode 17 years ago as “tragic” but firmly refusing to apologize to the family of his accuser.
“I don’t want to harp on this and be disrespectful of them, but at some point I have to say it: I was falsely accused. I went to court and I sat in trial,” he said in a ‘60 Minutes’ interview Sunday. “I was vindicated. I was proven innocent, and I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.”
The woman’s family has also continued to speak out as the film’s release approached. Sharon Loeffler, the sister of Parker’s accuser, wrote in a scathing essay in Variety that Parker had further exploited her sister because he “invented a rape scene” in the film, portraying the assault on Nat Turner’s wife as a catalyst for his rebellion.
“Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory,” Loeffler said.
At the Toronto International Film Festival in September, several members of the cast of “The Birth of a Nation” were asked how they would respond to people who have pledged to boycott the movie. In the interview with Yahoo Movies, Parker urged the public to consider the importance of his film, particularly in the context of the country’s current racial tension.
“I would say that 400-plus people have worked on this film, put in their time into this thing,” Parker said. “I do think that there are healing qualities for this country, I think there’s a conversation that needs to happen.”
His fellow cast member, Gabrielle Union — who responded to the controversy with a deeply personal op-ed in the Los Angeles Times — said she fully supported anyone who felt unable to see the movie, but reiterated Parker’s reminder that many people were involved in the production.
“We hope people are aware of how many feminists are in this film, who do the work every day, and how many allies and advocates we have in this film,” she said. “This movement is bigger than Nate Parker, it’s bigger than me, it’s bigger than any individual person in this film.”
For her part, Cizek says she would be Parker’s “biggest supporter” if he decided to lead a national conversation about consent, and to raise up the voices of women who have been silenced.
“The issue, still, is that he’s focusing a lot on the good he’s doing [with his film] without recognizing the harm he’s done — he’s still very much making it about him,” she says. “But he’s spoken out now about wanting to help, to be part of a dialogue about rape and sexual assault, and I think that’s great.”
It hasn’t always been something he’s wanted to talk about. Asked about the 1999 rape case in a 2007 interview with the Virginian-Pilot, Parker said that “if I had it my way, it would never be brought up again.”
Nearly a decade later, in the midst of a defining moment in his career, his past has never been more present.