Earlier this year, I was The Birth of a Nation‘s biggest fan. I was sharing stories about its record sell at Sundance Film Festival, praising star Nate Parker for writing it and anxiously awaiting a full trailer.
Then, the rape case came to light.
Back in 1999, Parker was a 19-year-old student at Penn State and shared an apartment with Jean Celestin, who also worked on The Birth of a Nation. In August of that year, a freshman classmate accused them of sexual assault, telling police that they took advantage of her after she passed out from having too much to drink. But Parker and Celestin said it was consensual.
The case went to court and Nate Parker was acquitted. This is where he drops the narrative in interviews because it does not behoove him to revisit why. Parker and the accuser had engaged in a consensual sexual encounter before the alleged rape, so the judge didn’t convict him. Meanwhile, Celestin was convicted (a decision later overturned) for rape.
A big part of what perpetuates rape culture is the belief that someone who’s consented to sex with a person before cannot be raped by that person later. It’s the same misguided thinking that made marital rape legal for decades. And it’s what seems to have gotten Parker off for rape. But, let’s be clear, Celestin was in that room, too, engaging in the same acts, and he was convicted simply because he didn’t have sex with the accuser beforehand. To me, it seems that the jury knew what happened in that room was a crime, but the accuser was not the “perfect” victim in Parker’s case. (In fact, attorneys brought up the length of her skirt and her tight-fitting clothes that night twice during the trial.)
Another person who didn’t think the situation seemed above board—Tamerlane Kanga. He testified that Parker was in his room with the the accuser when he and Celestin came down the hallway. Kanga said Parker motioned for them to come in the open door, but she didn’t seem to see them or say a word. He testified that her arms were moving, her legs were pressed to her chest and her feet were propped in the air. Against Kanga’s advice, he said Celestin entered that room, but he the group sex situation didn’t “seem right” to him, so Kanga left. He recently told The Daily Beast: ““I just felt like it was a bad place to be and I didn’t want to be there.”
One of the things that gets left out of the stories is that the accuser says she was repeatedly harassed after she reported them. A civil suit filed against Penn State (for allegedly not protecting her) claimed that the men exposed her identity to their friends, who, joined Parker and Celestin, “constantly hurled sexual epithets” at her on campus. She also said that people called her dorm, making harassing phone calls. The suit ended with Penn State giving the accuser a $17,500 settlement, but they never admitted any wrongdoing.
After that night, the accuser, who was a 4.0 student before, went on a downward spiral. She reportedly tried to kill herself twice in November 1999, just months after the alleged rape. By the next year, she’d dropped out and moved in with her sister in Philadelphia.
“She would literally sleep as much as she possibly could. Sleep all day. She’d wake up for little bits of time to eat pizza and smoke a cigarette,” her sister, Sharon, told The Daily Beast. “It was very bad—she had no life in her. There was no life left in her.”
Sharon said her sister, who’d been managing depression already, had once been a vibrant person, but the rape case and reported harassment took a toll. She had a baby boy a year after the trial, but battled addiction and her family says she realized that she couldn’t care for him, asking a friend to raise him. Then, she suffered from psychosis and spent time in a mental hospital.
In April of 2012, she swallowed 199 Rite Aid sleeping pills, ending her life.
With Parker’s new film making him more visible than ever, her siblings have spoken to the media about the case. Most recently, her sister penned an open letter to Parker, expressing disdain that the historical movie reportedly features a rape that never happened.
After reading all of that, I could never, in good conscience, support any of Parker’s projects. (Remember, the FBI says only between 2 and 8 percent of rape accusations are unfounded, which just means they can’t be proven in court, not that they didn’t happen.) Of course, I wasn’t in the room that night, but the court documents show there was little chance of consent being possible with her level of intoxication and Parker’s only real regret seems to be that it’s taking attention away from his money-making ambitions.
He claimed on Steve Harvey’s show that he’s been trying to find a way to use his platform to raise awareness about sexual assault, but that the media isn’t covering it. I haven’t seen every interview he’s done, but I’ve seen several cast interviews and it seems like actress Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor herself who penned an op-ed about the allegations against Parker, is the only one really trying to raise any awareness. Parker seems impatient, at best, and annoyed, at worst, whenever the subject comes up.
Unlike his accuser, Parker has a future. He’s got a promising career ahead of him (despite this controversy) and he can go home to his family every night. The same goes for Celestin, whose behind-the-scenes role has shielded him. Somehow, you’ve got people like Steve Harvey who applaud these men, say it’s unfair to hold him accountable when he’s been acquitted and call Parker the next Denzel Washington. Meanwhile, there’s a teenage boy whose mentally ill mother was not much more than a voice on the phone until she couldn’t imagine facing another day.
The Hollywood Reporter says The Birth of a Nation is on track for a $7 million to $8 million debut. But I hope the theaters are empty.