Is It Okay to See Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation?

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Photo: Earl Gibson III/Getty Images

Seventeen years ago at Penn State, the actor/director Nate Parker and his then-roommate, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping a classmate. According to court documents, after a night of drinking at a party, Parker, Celestin, and the victim had sex in Parker’s room. The victim, who said she couldn’t remember anything from that night, insisted the sex wasn’t consensual, while Parker and Celestin claimed that it was. She also claimed that Parker and Celestin had harassed her on campus afterward. Parker was acquitted of the charges, in part because he’d had sex with the victim before. Celestin, who is Parker’s writing partner on the soon-to-be-released Oscar contender Birth of a Nation, was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison. Phone transcripts introduced at trial illustrate how Parker attempted to make his accuser take a level of responsibility for the incident. Recently, Variety reported that the victim took her own life in 2012.

The details of this alleged rape aren’t new, but they’ve been given a new spotlight ahead of Birth of a Nation’s release. The movie, which depicts Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, was met with rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival, quickly followed by a bidding war that set a new Sundance record of $17.5 million, and early Oscar buzz. Parker addressed the rape charges head-on in an interview with a Deadline reporter last week, saying it was one of the most painful moments in his life, and that 17 years later, he has “done a lot of living and raised a lot of children.” Here, four New York Magazine writers discuss the meaning of Parker’s rape charge within the black community and beyond.

Ashley Weatherford: Where to begin? One thing that bothers me about this situation is that it has encouraged people to blindly defend Parker. Charlamagne Tha God’s recent tirade on Twitter comes to mind, in which he alluded to some sort of nefarious plot to use Parker’s rape charges to undermine the story of Nat Turner and Birth of a Nation. Anthony Anderson described Nate Parker as a “great guy” and encouraged people to focus on that. Al Sharpton has stated that he’s suspicious of why we’re talking about this now. The assumption that Parker is somehow the victim of a conspiracy to hinder his career is not as pervasive as it was with Bill Cosby, for example, but it’s there. Parker was acquitted of the charges, but Jean Celestin was not. The fact that Parker has continued to collaborate with Celestin is alarming, to say the least.

Part of me understands the knee-jerk reaction to want to defend Parker — I hate to see a black man be publicly torn down at the height of his career. Woody Allen might have molested a child, but he keeps on making movies with high-powered stars. But in this case, when the evidence is quite overwhelming, it’s hard to defend Parker. The most damning piece of evidence for me can be found in a recorded call between Parker, Celestin, and the victim. There, Parker uses alcohol to both justify his recklessness: “I was drinking, you were drinking, everyone was drinking. And I didn’t know you were all that drunk.” And to illustrate how the victim was seemingly still in control: “There’s no way that you did anything or said anything to assure that you didn’t want to do what you were doing.”

Once again, alcohol plays a starring role in a rape case, in which its abuse is used to muddy the waters of what it means to have consensual sex. One thing this case has made very clear, yet again, is that we need to educate each other on the definition of consent. I saw a great analogy about consent on Twitter the other day. The tweet painted a picture using $5. “If you ask me for $5, and I’m too drunk to say yes or no, it’s not okay to then go take $5 out of my purse just because I didn’t say no,” wrote Nafisa Ahmed.

Lindsay Peoples: If we’re going to talk about what bothers us, then I need to mention how it really upset me to read Parker’s statement repeatedly saying that the incident happened 17 years ago. Why does that matter? Because it happened a long time ago he shouldn’t be asked to answer for his actions? I remember reading in the New York Times that the victim’s parents didn’t want to get dragged into the media circus, but her sister said, “These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.” As someone who has a sister, that sparked a certain rage inside of me.

Dayna Evans: In a guest column for The Hollywood Reporter, Wilson Morales wrote that “the timing of this controversy seems questionable,” since the alleged rape happened so long ago, and it seemed only to resurface right before Parker’s Oscar-contending movie was set to be released. Morales pointed to other Oscar winners that sparked controversy, but “they came under fire after moviegoers already had the opportunity to see the film.”

To be honest, I don’t think the timing makes a difference: What happened happened. Parker has had a great deal of success in the 17 years since the rape charges were filed against him: He had a major role in Beyond the Lights in 2014, and several other roles in major films like The Secret Life of Bees and The Great Debaters. As we see too often, men talk about how rape has affected them and their lives without considering the lifelong imprint it has on the survivor. In his “apology,” Parker wrote, “I am filled with profound sorrow … I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this news,” speaking of his victim taking her own life. The more famous or successful a man gets, the easier it is for our culture to dismiss his prior (or even current!) bad or indefensible behavior, especially as it pertains to women.

Rembert Browne: Yes, I’m bothered by comments like Al Sharpton’s, which focus on the belief that the timing was a right-wing Hollywood conspiracy — but that’s Al’s job to say that, it’s in his iCal. More importantly, I’m bothered with myself. I’d heard about the incident before it became a nationwide story, talked about it with other black people, but didn’t want to be the one to “break” it — even though it was public, it wasn’t widely known. The conversations went from “I wonder if this will come out?” to “I wonder when?” to “I hope it does,” but even with that progression, in no way did I want to talk about it. Its public nature allowed many people, myself included, to pass the buck a bit — a pattern that allows people to keep winning longer than they should. I didn’t want to play a part in interfering with a fellow black person’s career without all the facts, but I also knew a black person doing something inexcusable actually makes things worse for everyone. It’s an unfortunate world, in which you trick yourself into thinking criticizing past actions of Nate Parker and Jean Celestin is somehow black-on-black crime, but it’s not. It’s simply being responsible.

Ashley: A thing that disappointed me a lot was Parker’s apology, or the lack thereof. To call something an apology you need the word “sorry,” or “I apologize.” His statement had neither. He needed those words. Not to say that they would make me forgive him.

Rembert: It was a press release.

Lindsay: Yeah. His Facebook post wasn’t great. I wish he would stop repeating that he is “a husband and father of daughters,” as if this makes him incapable of sexual assault. It actually makes it worse because in the transcript of his phone call to the victim, he describes some very disturbing events; things that he would never want to happen to his own daughters. To know that this woman killed herself years ago, and to refrain from using the word “sorry” in his post was a horrible decision.

Dayna: “While I maintain my innocence …” Man, the woman is dead, at least pretend that you have some respect for that fact. This was the letter of a man trying desperately to appeal to the set of people who would inevitably say, “Hey, the law is the law and Nate Parker was acquitted.” And so help me God, if I read one more man justifying the fact that he has only learned how to treat a woman with decency now that he has a daughter …

Lindsay: As a black woman it’s hard to condemn a mainstream successful black man because there are so few in Hollywood — we only have Denzel Washington, Will Smith, Samuel L. Jackson, and a handful more that are able to bring in millions at the box office. That’s why when Reverend Al Sharpton came forward in defense of Nate Parker and accused Hollywood of trying to smear his image, I wasn’t surprised in the least. But in this case, we have to. Roxane Gay captured the thought process well when she said, “Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or ‘important’ it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. No amount of empathy could make that possible.”

Ashley: Lindsay, I understand what you are saying. I feel a natural inclination to want to protect blackness when society leans in to decry it. And as a black woman there’s this weird, nebulous position we are often placed in — which comes first, protecting women or defending our race? There is no easy answer. Just as I am wary of our court systems and the injustices often thrust toward black people, I am wary of dismissing this woman’s claims.

Rembert: I’ve assumed some men don’t like coming down hard on “he said, she said” crimes between a man and a woman because, somewhere in that brain, there’s a thought that the same thing could happen to them. A “misunderstanding” could lead to that man being next in line, being accused of something. This leads to a situation where, ultimately, one would rather be vague in the present than hypocritical in the future. The truth is: I don’t know Nate Parker, so who am I to fully judge his current character — 17 years is a long time to internally attempt to pay for past sins. But it’s also a long time to reinforce past behavior, a long time to reap the benefits of the power imbalance that aided in his rise to prominence. As individuals, there is no requirement to pick a side in the court of public opinion. But completely staying out of it, while seemingly indifferent and fair is anything but — silence is still a vote of confidence, in favor of Nate Parker.

Dayna: Even though most of the details of the case had long been publicly available, the way Parker went from being a hero to a villain in such a short period of time felt new. There is speculation that the denunciation of Parker came quicker because of his blackness. If we look at the careers of Woody Allen and Michael Fassbender (and others who’ve been accused of crimes against women), they are largely protected by Hollywood and the media in ways that are actually hard to stomach. Look how much white men get away with in Hollywood without question or consequence. Why do they get the privilege of New York Times editorials? Honors for their humanitarianism?

But, maybe the reaction to his case is due in part to the very recent turn toward believing women in cases of sexual assault, something we’ve seen only culturally in the past two or three years since social media became a powerful megaphone. Look at the Brock Turner case, which went from a local, school-protected crime to a national outcry in barely a week. I hate to put too much power in the hands of Twitter, but it is an extremely handy tool for escalating stories that powerful publicists would in normal circumstances try to squash.

Ashley: So will you still go see the movie?

Dayna: I don’t know. This is one of the most complicated questions when it comes to thinking about people in the arts (or otherwise) who have histories with sexual assault or abuse. I came down very strongly against Woody Allen, but I never actually liked his work that much from the start, so it was easy for me to avoid him. I think we’d be surprised to learn how many bad people we enable by buying tickets to movies, concerts, and tuning into TV. I think the important thing to consider is: When you’re propping up a person who you know has exhibited reprehensible behavior, who are you taking an opportunity away from? It’s a pipe dream, but if we all decided to stop enabling known abusers in art, film, TV, or music, we wouldn’t have so much trouble naming more than five female directors — because in all likelihood, there would suddenly be an abundance of them.

Ashley: I’m going for two reasons. Not to support Nate Parker, but to support the 100 or so other names listed on Birth of a Nation’s IMDb page, and to support the story of Nat Turner. I’ll see it, but I won’t feel good about it.

Lindsay: I wanted to support this movie for the women of color who will finally get a spot in the mainstream limelight. But as more details unfold I’ve become so engrossed with the case that I just can’t see myself going. It’s like when I first found out about all of the women Bill Cosby allegedly assaulted, I was shocked and upset that this person I adored all my childhood was a monster. I firmly believed he was guilty, and I wasn’t foolish enough to back him just because he was this almost God-like creature in the black community. But, since then I haven’t watched The Cosby Show and refuse to support him on any level, even when friends claimed he was being targeted because he was a successful black man.

Rembert: Do you remember the conversation that happened, post-Cosby revelations, about what to do with the heavily syndicated show? Should you still watch it? Do the networks have an obligation to pull the reruns? Is there a way to just Photoshop Bill Cosby out of all the episodes? As Ashley says, one of the complications (which also is the case with Parker and Birth of a Nation) involves the innocent professional bystander — people directly associated with someone who should not be supported, due to previous transgressions. You don’t want those people to suffer, especially if they learned of someone’s questionable past at the same time the rest of the public did. At this point, knowing what I know and reading what I’ve read, this would be one of the few realities that got me into the theater.

But Birth of a Nation and Nate Parker are not complicated for me, the way a Cosby or an R. Kelly was. Both of those examples involve a past fan-artist relationship — a positive, happy one — that went full Titanic meets iceberg. With Kelly, I’d already — ashamedly — put in years of putting my hand over my eyes while peeking through my fingers, continuing to sing his songs, celebrate his charm, and even laugh at comedic takes on his most unseemly acts. With Parker, I have no connection. I have no history. I was proud of him as a possible Next Great Black™, but it never really went deeper than that. It’s much easier to turn around and leave the station if you never boarded the train. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t see the film, but from where the public information stands — from the alleged incident to the alleged harassment of the accuser that followed to the fact that her suicide appears to be connected to her troubled times at Penn State to Parker’s own words over the past week — I feel no urgency to support him (and his college wrestling buddy Jean Celestin) with a purchased ticket.