Rape allegations against filmmaker Nate Parker have resurfaced over the past few days as The Birth of a Nation—the Beyond the Light star's directorial debut, about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion—nears its October release.
The charges stemming from the 1999 incident, and documents from a later trial, have been public record for more than a decade, the entertainment industry website Deadline notes. A member of Livejournal gossip community Ohnotheydidnt made a blog post about the subject back in January. But their reemergence in the mainstream press last Friday has raised questions about the ethics of separating an artist from their creative work, the role institutions play in enabling rape culture, and more. This story evolves by the day, but at least for the time being, here are the basic facts you should know about the 17-year-old rape charges Parker faced when he was a student at Penn State.
The charges and trial
In 1999, an 18-year-old female student at Pennsylvania State University accused fellow students Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, who is credited on The Birth of a Nation's writing team, of raping her in Parker's apartment while she was unable to give consent.
“I just remember opening my eyes and seeing Nate having intercourse with me. It was just a split second," she testified, according to The Daily Beast. "And then awake again and… somebody just on top of me other than Nate.”
Parker and Celestin maintained that the alleged assault was consensual—a defense Parker vigorously stuck to in a phone call with the victim that was recorded by police, according to transcripts released by Deadline—and Parker was acquitted of the charges in 2001 following a trial. Celestin was initially found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to a six-month prison sentence, but the conviction was overturned on appeal. His accuser opted not to testify again, and Celestin's appeal trial, scheduled for 2005, never took place.
The brother of the unnamed woman at the center of these allegations told Variety that his sister "became detached from reality" following the trial. She ended up dropping out of Penn State, per Deadline.
Variety reports that the woman committed suicide in 2012 following multiple attempts in the years prior, and the Hollywood trade outlet reports that "her death certificate…state[s] that she suffered from 'major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse.'"
Nate Parker's response
Last week, the screenwriter, director, producer, and star of The Birth of a Nation told Deadline that he was "sure [the 1999 rape accusation against him] would come up" over the course of promoting his film, but that he "was cleared of everything." He continued:
I can’t change anything. You move forward, and every moment you’re alive, you’re living in the moment. I continue to fight for what’s important to me and I will, no matter how deeply I go under this microscope, no matter how bright the spotlight, I will fight against injustice in everything I do. And I will raise children and try to leave a legacy that points to that desire to see the changes happen that I’ve fought for.
Celestin told Deadline that he has "since moved on" from the rape charges he "was fully exonerated of." Fox Searchlight, the studio that bought the film for a record $17.5 million after this year's Sundance Film Festival, has issued a statement in support of Parker and the film. After the Variety Parker found out about the 2012 suicide and released an additional statement on Facebook where he continued to argue that "the encounter was unambiguously consensual." He went on:
There are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.
I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.
Community organizers and activists Erika Totten and Feminista Jones, who have spearheaded a months-long campaign to raise interest in and discussion surrounded Nat Turner and The Birth of a Nation, separately aired their thoughts on the ethics of supporting an important film made by an accused rapist. "I can already see many of our people on Twitter talking about The Birth of Nation as a choice between boycotting a film or choosing to see it, and thereby supporting homophobia and rape culture," Totten wrote. "I believe that not only is this a false choice, but these kinds of dichotomies inhibit the kind of complexity that our movement needs."
"With this new knowledge, I have to be responsible," Jones wrote. "In keeping with my practice to not support artists who I believe to be harmful towards women, or for whom I can not vouch, I can only be true to my principles and do so in this case as well."
Fusion reached out to Fox Searchlight and Nate Parker's agent at CAA for comment. We will update this article if we hear back.
Bad at filling out bios seeks same.