“The Birth of a Nation,” the film directed by, written by and starring Nate Parker, has been beset with controversy since a 17-year-old rape accusation against Parker resurfaced.
The allegation is that 19-year-old Parker was having sex with a woman, his date for the evening who others claimed was drunk to the point of slurring her words and stumbling around, when his Penn State roommate Jean McGianni Celestin — who shares a story credit on “Birth of a Nation” — and another friend, Tamerlane Kangas, saw them through the open door. Parker allegedly motioned for the two to enter, but only Celestin did. They proceeded to have a threesome, which Parker said was consensual.
In addition, after the accusation, the two allegedly harassed the woman.
Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, but Parker was acquitted.
The news has remained on Parker’s Wikipedia page for years, but it didn’t resurface in the public consciousness until the lead-up to his new film, which was likely an Oscar front-runner until the allegations resurfaced, Vulture noted.
In an Aug. 12 interview with Variety, Parker said, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it.”
The story might have fizzled out, but then Variety reported on Aug. 16 that the woman who accused him of rape in 1999 had committed suicide in 2012.
A week after that piece, Parker addressed the accusation in a Facebook post, in which he stressed his innocence but considers the threesome to have been immoral: “no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation.”
He also offered condolences to the woman’s family.
“I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow,” he wrote.
For many, that post was not enough.
In the New York Times, Roxanne Gay called it an “inadequate act of contrition.” She also addressed his interview with Variety, stating, “Most of what he has to say about that ‘painful moment’ involves how he felt, how he was affected. The solipsism is staggering.”
Complex published a piece titled “There’s No Good Reason to Support Nate Parker.” Black Nerd Problems, a culture website, stated it will not be reviewing the film. The Washington Post posed the question, “Should Nate Parker’s rape case make you rethink seeing ‘The Birth of a Nation’?”
The American Film Institute canceled a recent screening of the movie that would have been followed by a Q&A with Parker.
Perhaps left without a choice, Parker discussed the allegation in greater length, along with the media conversation surrounding it, in a new interview with Ebony’s Britni Danielle.
Throughout the interview, Parker mainly spoke on sexual consent and the difference between how he saw it at 19 years old, when the allegation was made, and at 36 years old as a married man. He prefaced his remarks with the phrase, “I’m not talking about, just being clear, any specific situation, I’m just talking about in general.”
At one point, Danielle asked directly about the rape allegation, but Parker danced around the question.
I’ll say this, I think that they are more things than the law. I think there is having a behavior that is disrespectful to women that goes unchecked, where your manhood is defined by sexual conquests, where you trade stories with your friends and no one checks anyone. At 19, that was normal. As a 36-year-old man, if I looked at my 19-year-old self as my son, if I could have grabbed him earlier before this incident, or even just going to college. Because for me, it’s about this incident, but it’s about a culture that I never took the time to try to understand. I never examined my role in male culture, in hyper masculinity. I never examined it, nobody ever called me on it.
Parker did, though, admit to never once thinking about the alleged victim in the 17 years since the accusation, stating, “I hadn’t thought about it at all.”
When asked about his apparent lack of contrition in the Variety interview in which he called it a “painful experience” for himself, and a similar Deadline interview from the same week, Parker said, “My only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know.”
Added Parker, “I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second.”
Then he explained his lack of empathy:
You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was being even arrogant. And learning about her passing shook me, it really did. It really shook me.
For the rest of the interview, he discussed his mindset at the time — he viewed sex as a conquest, the more partners, the bigger the victory.
“Put it this way, when you’re 19, a threesome is normal. It’s fun,” he said. “When you’re 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about — for me, back then — if you can get a girl to say yes, you win.”
Finally, he admitted to having never asked for consent from any of his sexual partners when he was younger.
“I’ll say this: at 19, if a woman said no, no meant no. If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go?” he said. “It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent.”
You can read the full interview on Ebony.com.
Reactions to the interview were decidedly mixed.
“His new interview is such bs. He throws around a lot of buzzwords but dances around the issue,” one user tweeted. “And Nate Parker responded like someone who clearly took a crash course in not sounding like a damn fool about rape and consent. … There’s a whiff of manipulation there in terms of narrative. This is a better executed version of Nate Parker’s original intentions,” another user said in a set of tweets.
Others, though, seem to have found it sincere, including Gay, the New York Times writer who penned the op-ed against him.
That’s not to say all is forgiven and imma be a Nate Parker stan but I appreciate Ebony asking the q’s & I appreciate him owning up,” one user tweeted. “His honesty and openness makes me hopeful,” tweeted another. “For some Sunday good feels, this interview,” tweeted a third.
It’s difficult to predict how the resurfaced allegations will affect the film’s planned Oct. 7 release or its Oscar opportunities. It’s also difficult to predict if Parker will speak out further.
As one publicist told Vulture, “I don’t think Nate can be as front and center as he probably planned.”
For now, the court of public opinion remains hung on the direction.