Will the Nate Parker Controversy Crush Oscar Hopes of Birth of A Nation
Actor, filmmaker Nate Parker is facing a firestorm of criticism after recently opening up about an
alleged rape case that he was acquitted of in 2001. Parker is director of the highly anticipated film “The Birth of a Nation,” an emotional portrayal of the freedom fighter Nat Turner, who led a rebellion that killed over 55 whites.
While a student at Penn State University in the late 1990s, he and wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin (the film’s co-writer) were charged and tried for the rape of a white classmate. Both Parker and Celestin maintain the sexual encounter was consensual. The accuser claimed it was not consensual because she was severely under the influence of alcohol. Although Parker was acquitted, Celestin was found guilty. His conviction was later appealed, and the prosecution overturned the case.
Conversations began heating up after Parker, 36, addressed the incident in an interview with Variety. He explained to the entertainment publication that, 17 years ago, he “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 five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is…I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
This admission garnered Parker strong adverse reactions around Hollywood and on social media, particularly after it was reported that in 2012 Parker’s accuser committed suicide.
Some have posted they will not support the film due October 7. Others criticized Parker’s lack of sensitivity and empathy towards sexually abused women.
“You collaborated on a rape 17 years ago, and now you pull [Celestin] in to make this film together,” says Kamilah Willingham, a campus-assault survivor featured in “The Hunting Ground” a documentary about incidents of sexual assault on college campuses. “I’m trying to picture a way this could turn out in which the film can still be celebrated. I can’t.”
Legendary actor and activist Harry Belafonte questioned the timing of the allegations resurfacing in the media. “It’s interesting because it’s coming out the same time the film’s coming out. Of all the stories you can tell, why are you telling this story?” asks Belafonte in an interview with the Associated Press.
Though Parker is having to contend with being labeled a rapist, Belafonte is calling him “a very bright man,” and the upcoming film he directs and stars in “a winner.”
Fact is, the film received immediate Oscar buzz at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year with Fox Searchlight purchasing the rights for a record $17.5 million, reportedly the richest deal in Sundance history.
Parker, known for his work in “The Great Debaters” and “Beyond the Lights” is being denied a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival. A festival spokesman told reporters,
“That’s definitive, it’s definitely not going to happen.” However, Fox Searchlight confirmed that Parker will address the media in a “press junket” at the festival and be joined by cast members Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union and Penelope Anne Miller.
Taking ownership of the controversy’s resurgence, the father of five girls and husband of a Non-African American wife, is hoping the film can create a platform for conversations about injustices not only in race relations but wherever it exists, especially among women survivors of sex abuse.
“Healing only comes from honest confrontation,” Parker said. “I was introduced to sex a certain way and I relied on that in my adolescence. And that type of male culture, that type of hyper-masculinity where your manhood is determined by how many women you get to say yes…its destructive…I was a dog. It was wrong. I hurt a lot of women. “Whether it’s at a barbershop talking about getting girls or on a train hollering at a girl, we need to change the conversation about how we respect women, and I’m taking the weight for that. I’m not
running from that.”
On August 16, 2016 Parker posted candidly on his Facebook page further explanation and sentiments about the criticism overshadowing his upcoming film’s release. “I write to you all devastated…”, he posts. “These issues of a women’s right to be safe and of men and women engaging in healthy relationships are extremely important to talk about, however difficult…And more personally, as a father, a husband, a brother and man of deep faith, I understand how much confusion and pain this incident has had on so many, most importantly the young woman who was involved. I just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow…”
Parker admits this moment is teaching him many lessons and insist that it is bigger than any court system. “It’s that saying, Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” he recites. “The reality is our issues are much more complex - they’re systemic and the only way to deal with and address systemic injustice is through solidarity and action. I encourage people to have conversations about his film when they leave...I just hope that when you watch the film you are compelled to have an opinion to talk about it and do something within your circle that will stand against whatever that injustice is that you see.”
The jury is still out on whether the film will suffer at theatre box offices next month. Fox Searchlight is planning to bring “The Birth of a Nation” director and his film to colleges across the country for open talks about slavery. Critics are urging Parker to add campus sexual assaults to the discussion.
The American Film Institute has cancelled a scheduled screening of the movie that included a Q&A with Parker. But Rev. Al Sharpton, who believes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the right-wing media are trying to use the incident to prevent the historical narrative about a slave uprising from being shown—says he has put the Academy on notice and would be monitoring opening of the film.
“The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger. All I want to know is what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s alright for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material?” In the meantime, Parker has said, “I ain’t perfect but I’m going to keep on trying to expand myself, to be a better man—to be a better man of God.”