Nate Parker has made a series of demonstrably foolish public statements in the months leading up to the release of The Birth of A Nation, a film that postures itself as a revolutionary story about Nat Turner’s Virginia slave revolt. As Parker trudges his way through a promo trail for a film that many agree is largely a disappointment, he’s offered one bad answer after another, with minimal tact, while fielding questions about his 1999 rape trial as a student at Penn State.
On Thursday night, the WGA held a screening of The Birth of A Nation in Manhattan, with a Q&A afterward that was much like the ones before it—Parker indulged a standing ovation from most of the audience and then answered questions. The panel, which included Parker and part of his cast (Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller and Colman Domingo), stepped over the elephant and focused on explaining what it took to fulfill Parker’s vision of a slavery film that ultimately opts for unchallenging pomp over sophisticated storytelling. Parker told the audience he wanted to “steer away from the obvious tropes that are always associated with films like this” and to show “what it was like for well-intentioned slave owners,” which is preposterous.
This went relatively smoothly when compared to Parker’s earlier appearances. A few days after his first major interview in early August with Deadline—the one where he aimed to get ahead of the rape trial he expected to resurface—Variety reported that the woman who accused him of rape had committed suicide in 2012; her brother cited post-trial depression as a factor. As star, co-writer and director of The Birth of a Nation, Parker had tried to preempt the press coverage of the old allegations by speaking on it from the jump. This botched attempt at honesty proved to be a foolish strategy, in part because it ignored the fact that any “strategy” would’ve failed given the circumstances of the trial, and all the PR training in the world can’t correct flaws in ego.
In piece published Friday, The Hollywood Reporter revealed that, according to sources, Oprah Winfrey “suggested Parker address the matter in an appearance with [Gayle] King on her CBS program. But Parker declined. He was angry that what he saw as a consensual, youthful sexual experimentation gone awry had become an issue years later despite his acquittal, and that it was happening just when his Nat Turner passion project was not only finished but positioned as a major Oscar contender.”
It helps little that The Birth of a Nation stands as an unimpressive piece of art. In “The Birth of a Nation Isn’t Worth Defending,” The New Yorker’s Vinson Cunningham, citing great filmmakers like Ava DuVernay and Ryan Coogler, concluded: “We do them and ourselves a disservice by lowering our expectations, and extending undue credit to bad art.” Over the past few months, when faced with tough questions about the rape trial during his press run, Parker has detached himself, denied any wrongdoing and refused to apologize, all of which has made it impossible to take him seriously.
Deadline Panel, Sundance Film Festival
Held: January 26, 2016
Parker said: “There is a system, that is based on race, that says African American films don’t sell, so this is a win for independent filmmakers, this is a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country and abroad. We don’t have to accept those rules, those ideas that started before we were doing it. Who made up the rules? No one knows. Yet we abide by them? No, no more. I’m swinging a hammer, I wanna break everything. Subvert, subvert, subvert.”
It’s easy to see how critics here were lured by the intensity of Parker’s self-important speech. He’d seemingly presented them with art that could counter the flurry of whiteness in Hollywood. But as Soraya Nadia McDonald wrote at The Undefeated:
An atmosphere of scarcity teaches us to grab serious, ambitious films such as The Birth of a Nation and treat them as manna in a cultural food desert. Scarcity unfairly becomes part of the context of how we evaluate film. It blinds us, or at least allows us to paper over issues that otherwise might raise red flags.
American Black Film Festival Panel
Held: June 17, 2016
Parker said: “If this film wins awards, but people see the film and behaviors don’t change, than we have lost. This must not be a film that comes and goes.”
Months after the $17.5 million deal, Parker appeared to be focused on creating change through his film, not on the accolades. The rape trial had yet to resurface, so there was much more room to focus on the film’s intent and its connection to current black life in American. As CNN reported:
Parker told those assembled that he believed too strongly in the project to abandon it. He connected the story of Turner’s rebellion with the state of African Americans in the U.S. today. He added that the film is about more than the awards season buzz it’s already generating.
Variety Article, “‘The Birth of a Nation’ Star Nate Parker Addresses College Rape Trial”
Published: August 12, 2016
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. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is [long silence] I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
In an interview with Variety, Parker stated that his hope was to not relive the rape trial. The PR strategy set up seemed clear: focus on the film and leave the past behind. While both Variety and Deadline reported on the details of the trial in their respective pieces, the news that the alleged victim had taken her own life was yet unknown.
Deadline Article, “Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish ‘The Birth Of A Nation’”
Published: August 12, 2016
Parker said: “I was sure it would come up. It is there, on my Wikipedia page, the Virginia Pilot… 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.”
Again, in an attempt to control the narrative of the trial he knew would resurface, Parker turned to mainstream Hollywood outlets where he focused on putting the memory behind him and expressed no remorse.
Ebony Interview, “Nate Parker on Campus Incident, Consent and Toxic Male Culture”
Published: August 27, 2016
Parker said: “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.” And: “I called a couple of sisters that know that are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity, and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.”
In an interview with Ebony published in late August, Parker seemed to claim some semblance of responsibility for his actions. This remains his most lucid interview, in which he weighs the definition of consent and considers the possibility that he didn’t understand what it meant when he was in college. He appeared to allow for the possibility that his younger self had fucked up royally, without stating it outright. The interview was published days after the AFI cancelled a screening of The Birth of a Nation.
Toronto Film Festival Panel
Held: September 11, 2016
Parker said: “This is a forum for the film, for the other people sitting here on this stage. It’s not mine at the moment. It doesn’t belong to me. I really don’t want to hijack this forum. I want to make sure that we are promoting this film.” And: “I won’t try to speak for everyone. I would say, you know I’ve addressed it. The reality is there is no one person that makes a film. Over 400 people were involved in the making of this film. I would just encourage everyone to remember that personal life aside, I’m just one person.”
During a panel with Gabrielle Union, Aunjanue Ellis, Armie Hammer and Colman Domingo, Parker avoided a question from a New York Times reporter about his non-apology. The conversation steered away from controversy and into the importance of the film’s historical context. “I want to be able to show this film to an Aboriginal community in Australia on mute—and them for them to be able to say in their language amongst themselves: I get this,” said Parker. “I feel charged with the responsibility to do something within this drive.”
Aired: October 2, 2016
Parker said: When asked, “Do you feel you did something morally wrong?” Parker responded, “As a Christian man, just being in that situation, yeah sure. I’m 36 years old right now. My faith is very important to me so looking back through that lens I definitely feel it’s not the lens I had when I was 19 years old.” He also said, “I don’t feel guilty.”
In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Parker retained his “not guilty” stance and reiterated that he was “devastated” to find out that the victim had taken her life. He also declined to apologize and teared up while stating that he was “falsely accused” but ultimately vindicated when he was found not guilty. “An apology is... no,” he said.
Good Morning America
Aired: October 3, 2016
Parker said: “I think the important thing, you know, is this isn’t about me. The story of Nat Turner as an American, as American people, to know the story about a man who was erased from history, at some point I think that’s where our focus should be, especially now.”
In a strange turn, Parker appeared defensive with Robin Roberts, who began the interview by confronting him with questions about his apparent lack of empathy. Roberts committed to asking tough questions—“It can’t just be dismissed,” she told him. But Parker came across frustrated about the number of times he’s had to address the trial. “I keep talking about it. I keep talking about it,” he said. This uncomfortable portion was followed by Parker explaining his art, which included a reference to Nina Simone’s quote about art reflecting the times.
For their piece published today, sources told THR there was a foiled attempt to place Parker with PR experts:
The studio had invested in public-relations experts from Washington, D.C.-based Glover Park Consulting to give Parker media training and hired former NFL pro Don McPherson, who frequently speaks on issues of sexual violence, to help Parker find a way to send the right message. While sources say Parker seemed at times to understand the need to emphasize his sorrow about the devastating impact of the 1999 encounter on the woman at the center of the charges, sources say when the cameras rolled he reverted to his original position. “They gave him talking points and he just didn’t execute,” says one industry veteran with knowledge of events.
The Steve Harvey Show
Aired: October 5, 2016
Parker said: “Even outside of this tragic situation, I have so much empathy and even regret for that night... Looking at myself [back then], the ideas of what I thought made a man aren’t the same as the ideas in my mind right now.”
In a confounding, bad decision, Parker chose to sit with Steve Harvey of all people and took aim at the media. “Are we in the business of headlines or are we in the business of healing? Because I’m trying to do the work,” he said. He admitted that the way he initially addressed the trial to Deadline and Variety was “insensitive.” But he also misguidedly blamed journalists for steering the conversation away from the movie. Harvey, of course, agreed that the media unfairly tied the rape trial to the film.
The Breakfast Club
Aired: October 6, 2016
Parker said: “This is bigger than my character. If it’s the Lord’s will to be in this business for another 50 years, people will get to know me. They’ll get to know my heart and I’m cool with that... I’m gonna let my art, let my activism speak in ways that my mouth on these shows or—These headline hunters and these clickbait people, I’ma let them do their thing. I’m not tripping on anything right now.”
In a nearly 50-minute interview, Parker was allowed to tread in metaphors instead of directly addressing the controversy and talked about everything from the film’s impact to the soundtrack, and quoted Bible verses. As with the Steve Harvey sit-down, the misguided message—fueled by Charlemagne’s wondering “Why now?”—was that the media response has been a targeted blitz.