The Vilification of Nate Parker

Last week saw the release of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. It also saw a large group of survivors of rape and people openly protesting seeing the film. This is a far cry from ten months ago when the film received rapturous applause at the Sundance Film Festival, winning both the festival’s Grand Jury and Audience award. The boycott has come about two months ago as the public was made aware of Nate Parker’s rape trial that involved him and Jean McGianni Celestin, who shared a co-story credit for the film, in 1999.

In 1999, a woman, who will go by the name of Jane Doe, accused Park and Celestin, both prominent wrestlers at Penn State, of having sex with her without consent at the same time. Not having consent constitutes as rape. She said she was too inebriated to properly give consent at the time. Parker was acquitted at trial but Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. That would later be overturned because the Superior Court found his attorney to be incompetent. Usually this calls for a new trial but the court decided that because it was so many years after the initial conviction, it was too hard to round up all the witnesses that was at the original trial, thus the suit was dismissed. Jane Doe would later fall into poverty, suffer from psychotic episodes and eventually commit suicide.

This case is a particularly interesting one in a time that a Presidential candidate has had tapes released of him saying that he would commit sexual assault. We are also at a time in which sexual assault, consent on college campuses and the general conversation about rape is finally improving despite it moving at a snail’s like pace.

Then again, this is the time that we need The Birth of a Nation most. There is a palpable anger that can be felt within the black communities. Around the time the trial resurfaced, we were on the fallout of the deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Several cops in Dallas were shot during a Black Lives Matter demonstration and that is just touching the surface of all the events that has happen since then. The Birth of a Nation is catharsis, talking about the story of Nat Turner who, without any resources but his own faith, gathered up a coalition of black slaves and rebelled against slave owners. He was denounced as a terrorist and the incarnation of evil from white plantation owners but for African Americans, he was a symbol of patriotism and hope.

When the movie premiered at Sundance, the morale toward African American representation in film was at a low. For the second straight year, The Academy Awards did not have a single nominee of color in the acting categories. This despite the fact that there were prominent movies featuring African Americans like Creed, Selma and Straight Outta Compton. But, this feeling of frustration was not towards the fact that they were not receiving awards. Rather, it spoke to a larger systemic issue of the lack of African Americans in prominent roles in film. Those three films were outliers while whitewashing in films like Ghost in the Shell, Gods of Egypt and Social Network was and still is happening.

The Birth of Nation had to bear the burden social issues of Black Lives Matter and African American representation on film and Nate Parker openly welcomed that burden. One of the narratives that was created around the film the story of how Parker was able to fund the film. He had originally conceived the story early in his acting career but was openly told by prominent producers in Hollywood that there was no chance he would ever get to make a Nat Turner movie. After he starred in Beyond the Lights, he told his agents that he was not going to accept any more roles until he got this film made. He got individual funding from people like NBA basketball players, Tony Parker and Michael Finley, and the film became the highest paid acquisition by a studio in Sundance history by Fox Searchlight. They were not even the highest offer.

This controversy has a multitude of layers and a collision of issues that makes it a conflicting subject matter. Here is Nate Parker, a newly prominent figure in the African American community, accused of raping a white woman. His film is titled The Birth of a Nation, referencing a film that openly encouraged white anxiety towards the brutality of African Americans committing violent acts especially against white women. He is also a privileged athlete at Penn State in 1999 which has its own history of covering up rape scandals. The woman was later bullied and eventually dropped out suing the University for not protecting her from the unwanted attention. The issue of rape permeates deeply throughout this trial and its aftermath.

So how do we treat Nate Parker and is there a such thing as being morally relative?

This has been the conflict many people struggle with reconciling whenever they look at art. Can you reasonably watch a Roman Polanski film without thinking of his statutory rape case? Can you vote for a politician who has openly demeaned women? Fatty Arbuckle’s career was ended when he was falsely accused of murder. Kobe Bryant just celebrated the last year of his NBA career as a maven of basketball despite settling a rape charge over ten years ago. Mel Gibson is directing a prominent movie after years in “movie jail” after anti-Semitic, racist and misogynistic statements he made in a recording that has legitimate Oscar potential. I still feel weird every time I dance to Ignition (Remix) knowing that R. Kelly’s past transgressions with underage women. Manhattan, a film in which Woody Allen is dating an underage high school student, based on a real life relationship he had, feels more uncomfortable after Dylan Farrow penned an op-ed alleging that he sexually assaulted her as a child. We are at a time when no person below a certain age will ever watch The Cosby Show because of the number of women Bill Cosby allegedly drugged and raped.

So where does this put Nate Parker? Why has this stigma especially followed Parker and why has he been vilified throughout this process?

We as Americans love to give second chances. Anthony Weiner had a second chance and almost became mayor of New York until his transgressions caught up to him. Mike Tyson went to jail for sexual assault but now he is a repentant, uncle of America who loves pigeons.

Parker almost got out of this scandal without a scratch. He masterfully handled the media when the scandal first broke. He advocated for rape survivors and told them to become vocal about the abuses that they received. He acknowledged his objectifying of women when he was younger, using buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” and male culture. Parker even conducted a candid interview with Ebony magazine, a publication that has a predominantly African American woman readership in which he talked about consent:

"If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? If I touch her breast and she’s down for me to touch her breast, cool. If I touch her lower, and she’s down and she’s not stopping me, cool. I’m going to kiss her or whatever. It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent."
Let me be the first to say, I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid. I knew that no meant no, but that’s it. But, if she’s down, if she’s not saying no, if she’s engaged–and I’m not talking about, just being clear, any specific situation, I’m just talking about in general.

The best thing he did was bring the conversation to the subject of rape.

But, the mistake that Parker made was make the conversation entirely about him. That is where the outrage starts. His first response to the allegation was to point towards how he feels about the subject matter. In every interview, he has repeatedly deflected questions of morality pointing towards his marriage and children, and being a man of faith.

"I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters."

For many rape survivors, this was the cavalier attitude that has made their assault feel more painful. More recently, Parker has taken a different tone to the allegations that was made against him. In an interview with 60 Minutes, the first time he addressed the topic in an on-camera interview, promoting the release of the film, he says:

"I don't feel guilty.
I'll say this. I do think it's tragic, so much of what happened and [what] the family had to endure with respect toio this woman not being here. 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. I was vind— [choking up]. 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."

This is a far cry from the initial response to talk about rape on campus at the start of the controversy. This also comes from a film that openly uses victimization in an effort to create emotional manipulation. In the film, the wife of Nat Turner is gang raped by a group of white slave hunters. The scene in which Turner discovers his wife is entire focused on him as his wife breaks down. This is used as the motivation for Turner to start his rebellion. This rape never happened in the historical records. Another rape is alluded to, to actress Gabrielle Union, an actress who was raped at gunpoint at the age of 19. She has stood by Parker while also expressing empathy to all who feels conflicted about the film by penning a widely praised op-ed.

The vilification of Nate Parker did not necessarily stem from the rape charges. It comes from his response. In his book about villains, I Wear the Black Hat, Chuck Klosterman observes, “It’s not the intelligence people dislike. It’s the calculation.”

And truthfully, that is what made this so hard on me. Every response from Parker has felt like it came straight from his PR machine. There is a deliberate choice that he was making in choosing Ebony to be his first on the record interview about the scandal. He evokes faith, his family and his past rape charges like a white person defending his own racism by saying he has black friends.

The court could not find Nate Parker guilty beyond a reasonable doubt. Rape charges have always been a risky crime to charge, especially when it pertains to athletes. For every Duke Lacrosse scandal, there are survivors who have remained silent or had their case dismissed due to insignificant evidence. What makes rape so hard to charge is also what makes it one of the most violating crime. It is so personal and so private, often times, it becomes a he-said-she-said case. There is without a doubt that there was a sexual encounter that happened that night between the three parties involved. But, it becomes a conversation about whether consent was ever offered and if it was, was it ever revoked.

The reason why more women do not come out against their rapists is because there are very little incentives to do so. In the Nate Parker case, court documents showed that the jury still had questions at the end of the trial to what constituted consent. Jane Doe filed a lawsuit against the University after the trial because the University allegedly failed to protect her against the wrestlers and their cohorts from retribution. According to the suit, they hired a private investigator to obtain a picture of her and enlarge it to supply it around campus. People allegedly would shout, “There goes the white girl crying rape.” After the constant bullying, she went from a 4.0 GPA to suffering from depression to dropping out of Penn State soon after.

None of this has anything and everything to do with The Birth of a Nation as a film. You cannot look at the movie in a vacuum. That is the rigors of celebrity. Every piece of dirt that has ever accumulated underneath your fingernail will without a doubt come out. But, this controversy has created conversation. The conversation is difficult, dark and sad. But, it is a conversation. I cannot say you should boycott all Nate Parker’s films or call him a rapist. I cannot say that he is the man of morality that he has repeatedly say. He is a celebrity. We do not know him. We only know him as an idea and a symbol. At one point earlier this year, he was the symbol of hope and black justice. Now, he is a tarnished symbol, the same way as Cosby and OJ was. Will he ever come back to the good graces of public opinion? Probably. Polanski was nominated for an Oscar for Best Director despite being exiled from America.

Whether watching a movie or experiencing art because of morality is a personal question. Nate Parker is only the latest person to fall under that scrutiny. The results of this should be to continue the conversation of rape culture on college campuses because that fight is not dead yet.  

For a long form piece about the actual Nate Parker case click here.