‘Birth of a Nation’ star Gabrielle Union: ‘Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine’

Gabrielle Union attends the BODY At The ESPYs pre-party at Avalon Hollywood on July 12. Union penned an op-ed that was published Friday in The Times on the controversy involving "The Birth of a Nation" director Nate Parker's 2001 rape trial.
(Dave Mangels / Getty Images)
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In an op-ed written for The Times, actress Gabrielle Union addressed the controversy surrounding “The Birth of a Nation” director and Oscar-hopeful Nate Parker.

Union, who portrays an unnamed slave in the film who is sexually assaulted, said learning about Parker’s 2001 sexual assault trial left her “in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”

Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin, his college roommate at the time and now “Nation” collaborator, were charged in 2001 with the 1999 rape of a woman who alleged that she was intoxicated and unconscious at the time of their sexual encounter. Both men said it was consensual.


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Union wrote in the op-ed, which will be published in Sunday’s paper, that she took the role in “Nation” “to talk about sexual violence. To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary.”

Union has long been an advocate for victims of sexual assault, stemming from her own experience being raped at age 19.

“This is real. We are real. Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine. And if the stories around this film do not prove and emphasize this, then I don’t know what does,” she wrote.

The accolades received by “Birth of a Nation,” which earned the grand jury and audience prizes in the U.S. Dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival, before being acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million and becoming an early Academy Award front-runner, have brought renewed scrutiny of the 17-year-old accusation against Parker.

Parker was acquitted. Though Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault, the verdict was overturned in 2005, when his original counsel was deemed ineffective. The case was dropped when prosecutors could not gather enough witnesses to testify in a retrial.


The latest examination of the charges brought against Parker — who wrote, directed and starred in “The Birth of a Nation” — revealed that his accuser committed suicide in 2012, a development for which Parker expressed “profound sorrow.”

Since learning of Parker’s situation, Union wrote that she cannot take the allegations lightly.

“My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control,” she wrote. “It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice. It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen -- other survivors, or even potential perpetrators.”

In conclusion, Union hopes that all the talk surrounding the issues in the film and in Parker’s past serve as an opportunity for people to work even harder to prevent sexual assault in the future and “to support its victims. To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture. And to eventually wipe the stain clean.”

Reactions Friday morning to Union’s op-ed have been largely positive, with online words of support coming from several sources, including fellow actresses Thandie Newton, Holly Robinson Peete and Taraji P. Henson, as well as the president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, Cecile Richards.


Twitter: @midwestspitfire


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10:15 a.m.: This post was updated with social media reaction to Gabrielle Union’s Times op-ed.

This article was originally published at 3:10 a.m.