The overwhelming support for the forthcoming film The Birth of A Nation has made Nate Parker a Hollywood rarity: a black filmmaker who’s earned major acclaim before his movie even hits theaters. While anyone who dares to make a movie about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion wants people to talk, the conversations around Parker’s film may go a different route: So far, they’ve been partially centered around a rape charge he faced as a student at Penn State 17 years ago.
The Birth of A Nation was a movie designed to be a conversation piece about race and the idea that black bodies have been so recklessly undervalued throughout history. That should continue to be a focal point as Parker—who co-wrote, produced and directed the film—steadily becomes a mainstream star. Since the record-breaking $17.5 million Sundance deal, he’s secured another feature film and, in March, CinemaCon named him Breakthrough Director of the Year. Despite all these nods, it was inevitable that his 1999 rape case would resurface to complicate all the praise generated around his prize project and add more unsettling shades to the dialogue.
Is it possible to root for a talented black filmmaker amid contentious details about his past with women? Certainly, it’s left us perplexed. Jezebel floated the idea of discussing the charges when the trailer was released in April, and didn’t. It’s irresponsible to overlook a rape charge, though, simply because there’s a buzzed-about movie on deck. The details of the trial have been available through public record, just not highly publicized until now, leading up to his movie’s October release. Along with an interview with Parker published to their site on Friday, Deadline posted portions of the trial transcripts, including a disturbing phone call and closing arguments from both sides.
As a student at Penn State, Parker, then 19, shared an apartment with his friend Jean McGianni Celestin, who has a story credit on The Birth of A Nation (in its Sundance review, Variety noted that Parker wrote the screenplay and Celestin contributed to, or co-wrote, the story). In August 1999, an 18-year-old college freshman at the time accused the two men—both then members of the school’s wrestling team—of sexual assault. The student alleged that Parker and Celestin had sex with her in a room in their apartment while she was intoxicated and passed out, according to court papers. Parker and Celestin claimed it was consensual sex. During the trial, Parker and the accuser also stated that they’d had a consensual sexual encounter prior to the alleged rape.
While Parker was acquitted of the rape charges in October 2001, Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. Variety notes that “a second trial in 2005 was thrown out due to the victim not wanting to testify again.” Court papers state that the accuser eventually dropped out of Penn State and claimed she attempted suicide. The accuser won a settlement in a civil suit filed with the Women’s Law Project, and Penn State was ordered to pay her $17,50o.
The gravity of both the film and Parker’s rape trial, as with similar sexual assault allegations against famous entertainers like David Bowie and R. Kelly and its relation to their art, once again challenges our expectations on how to approach and ultimately contextualize an artist’s actions, not to mention the endless footprint our past decisions have in the internet age. Parker is in a precarious position now, forced to explain the charge while promoting a project whose subject matter is unrelated. It’s difficult for him to atone for his past—in other words, to acknowledge some form of guilt—without also detaching himself from it for publicity reasons. As audiences and fans of art, we’re in a difficult position, too: we want to support this important film and advocate for the victim (and all victims).
Parker, who has addressed the rape charge before, talked about the trial again in his Deadline interview about Birth of a Nation. In it, he refers to the trial as an unfortunate blemish in his past. “I was sure it would come up. It is there, on my Wikipedia page, the Virginia Pilot,” he says. “I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful 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.”
Parker is expectedly vigilant and ambiguous with his language, pointing out that the law exonerated him. He calls that time in his life “painful.” He seems comfortable speaking generally about the case—just not in specific detail. He wants the public to know he supports sexual assault victims.
“Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband,” he says. “The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up.”
He adds, “I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.” His language is carefully chosen.
Parker may feel far removed from the trial, but the general public has only recently been made aware of its details, many of which are hazy and disturbing. Based on the content of public records, the central argument in the case was whether the accuser could have consented to sex while intoxicated. That both Parker and the accuser admitted to previous consensual sex legally played a role in his acquittal.
In the trial transcripts, the accuser reveals that she and Nate initially met through her male friend Courtney, and describes an encounter with Nate in his room that happened the day before the alleged rape. The accuser appears to want to convey the idea here that she liked him and felt obligated to pleasure him when they had consensual sex. That portion of the transcript reads:
Q. So what happened?
A. He came up. Initially we spoke like he could help me unpack. I started unpacking. He was sitting down on my bed. He then asked me to sit beside him. I was putting away a red dress I do remember and he asked me to try it on and I told him no and he asked me to sit beside him. He started rubbing my neck, kissing my neck, kissing. We did kiss back and forth. I was wearing a skirt. He tugged at my panties and I pulled them back up and I said, no, I do not know you that well yet and instead I performed oral sex on him.
Q. Why did you perform oral sex on him?
A. I liked him, but I don’t see that — I mean at the time I did it because I didn’t want to have sex, but I didn’t want to leave it at nothing. I can’t really explain it. I’m not proud of it, but I saw it as being safer and not as big an issue.
As for the rape allegation, according to Deadline (the publication posted scans of court documents but chose not to name the accuser):
At trial, the woman testified she was intoxicated, unconscious through much of the encounter and upset to find she had experienced unwanted sex with Parker — though she acknowledged having willingly engaged in oral sex with him during an encounter the day before. More, she said she was shocked on becoming briefly conscious to find in her mouth the penis of another man, who was later identified as Celestin.
Court papers also refer to a disturbing phone call (that transcript is here) between Parker, Celestin and the woman that was referenced as part of the trial. Via Deadline (emphasis mine):
In a phone call taped without the permission of Parker or his roommate, the woman falsely claimed to be pregnant, in what she said was an attempt to get him to identify the third sexual partner in the room that night. The police later monitored a second call during which both Parker and Celestin generally admitted the sexual encounter but insisted it was consensual.
“I’m not try, trying to be mean, but, I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean?” said Parker. “I really felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.”
The trial also featured testimony from another student who was around during the incident:
At trial, a third man, Tamerlane Kangas, testified that Parker waved him and Celestin to join him when they spied Parker and the woman having sex in the bedroom. While Celestin accepted the invitation, Kangas declined, and left the apartment. He was not charged with any crime. “I didn’t believe that four people at one time was — you know, it didn’t seem right,” he testified.
These trial details say it all in many ways. With the case now out in the open as The Birth of A Nation approaches release, Fox Searchlight has reportedly tried to get ahead of the conversation to determine “how best to protect its sizable investment and Oscar chances,” Deadline reports, especially given that the movie contains a depiction of rape, which Gabrielle Union previously detailed.
For the movie’s producers and distributors, with the risk that the rape case might overshadow a project in which they’ve placed tons of money and faith, the focus seems to be on image. It’s perhaps no coincidence that news about Parker’s fellowship for directors of color dropped around the same time as Parker’s interview. The studio remains anxious about the backlash potential, according to Variety, which reports that, as of Monday, execs are “taking a wait and see approach to a proposed ambitious release plan that had called for extensive outreach to church groups, college campuses and prominent Hollywood figures.”
The studio is reportedly hesitant about Parker doing any further interviews (following Deadline and Variety’s articles) before The Birth of A Nation’s premiere at the Toronto Film Festival in September:
The hope is that by addressing the case well in advance of the movie’s festival run and October 7 debut, Parker can put it behind him by the time audiences get to see the movie.
While a source claims Searchlight execs didn’t know about the rape charge before acquiring the film, it’s hard to believe a studio wouldn’t do their homework before such a huge deal.
Mashable’s article on Parker’s charges includes a disclosure from the writer at the end, noting that he’d met Parker before and liked The Birth of A Nation but that those circumstances didn’t play a role in their prior lack of coverage. It’s a strange level of self-awareness. From the media’s perspective, there’s a presumed obligation on display, given incidences of famous men whose gross behaviors have returned to haunt them (Bill Cosby is the most egregious example). As much as we, Jezebel included, want to boost Parker’s work, we also feel the need to untangle past mistakes and be a voice in the internet-fueled cycle that champions accountability rather than ignores it.
Parker told Deadline he’s been open throughout the post-production process. “I never felt the need to introduce all the obstacles in my past when I say, ‘Hello, my name is Nate.’ But at the same time, I’ve never hidden from it,” he says. “Anytime anyone has asked me about this, I’ve been open. It’s tough reliving it, 17 years after the fact, but I never hid it from Fox. The last 48 hours, it was something we discussed and I’ve always said I live in truth. I don’t know how these things work, who to talk to and what to say, but I have been very clear with everyone. Anyone who wants to talk to me, I will talk to them.” If Searchlight permits it, he’ll likely have a lot more talking to do.