When Nate Parker premiered his provocative drama about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the audience response was electric. After a fierce bidding war, Fox Searchlight acquired “The Birth of a Nation” for a record $17.5 million and Parker, a first-time director, seemed to be barreling toward Oscar season with an air of inevitability.
Instead, a complex and tragic chapter from Parker’s past has placed the 36-year-old writer, director and star of “The Birth of a Nation” at the center of a roiling controversy over sexual assault.
In 1999, while a scholarship wrestler at Penn State University, Parker was accused and acquitted of raping a woman. His roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who received a writing credit on the movie, was convicted in the case, but the verdict was overturned.
Parker had previously discussed the case in interviews, but many in Hollywood first learned of the story in recent days due to articles in the trade press that included harrowing new details about the case. On Friday, Deadline posted the trial transcripts, which contain the woman’s allegation that she was unconscious during the encounter, and on Monday, Variety reported that she committed suicide in 2012 at age 30, which Parker said he did not know.
Many expected the filmmaker to withdraw from an intensive promotional campaign for the film. But in defiance of the conventional strategy that public figures take a break from appearances when such a story erupts, Parker seems determined to stay in the public eye and face whatever uncomfortable questions arise. He appeared at a film festival in Martha’s Vineyard for a question-and-answer session moderated by Spike Lee over the weekend, and is scheduled to attend a series of events in the weeks before the film is released Oct. 7, including the Toronto Film Festival and a press junket. Plans for a 12-city tour, which involves speaking to community groups and churches, are still in place.
“I understand how much confusion and pain this incident has had on so many, most importantly the young woman who was involved,” Parker said in a lengthy Facebook post about the case he shared Tuesday night. “I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow.”
Parker has maintained his innocence in the case, and Fox Searchlight, the company distributing his film, has also issued a statement in support of him.
“Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State,” the studio said in a statement. “We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”
“Birth of a Nation” premiered to a rapturous standing ovation at Sundance in January, just as a controversy over an all-white slate of acting nominees rocked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, prompting drastic rule changes designed to increase inclusion at the organization. At the time, critics praised Parker’s film for its portrait of racial catharsis, and many in Hollywood hoped it would serve as a step forward in the ongoing debate about diversity in the film business.
Just seven months later, it seems clear Parker and his film will instead walk through a thicket of inflammatory social issues, as evolving views about sexual assault on college campuses collide with the long, deadly history of rape accusations against black men.
Parker’s story has also come to light in a moment when accusations about sexual assault and harassment are being treated with a new seriousness. Outrage over a six-month sentence for a Stanford University athlete convicted of assaulting an unconscious woman, and high-profile cases involving Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes have caused many to consider allegations more earnestly, even in a case that results in acquittal.
In 2001, the accuser, who was a white Penn State student, told the campus paper the Daily Collegian that she withdrew from the university after “harassment and endless threats I received.”
“What has been happening culturally in the last couple years with people finally, finally, talking about sexual assault and taking it seriously, we’ve never seen this happen before,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center. “People are still questioning, ‘Is it possible that someone was acquitted who really did it?’”
In previous controversies around filmmakers, audiences and academy members have already had a relationship with the artist, such as those surrounding Woody Allen, accused of rape by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, during the 2013-2014 awards campaign for the movie “Blue Jasmine,” and Roman Polanski, who could not travel to the U.S. during the 2002-2003 campaign for “The Pianist” because he still faced charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977. But Parker, who has appeared in the films “Beyond the Lights,” “Red Tails” and “The Great Debaters,” is a new face to many moviegoers and to members of the film academy.
Parker’s film engages some of the very same issues that are surrounding him — “Birth of Nation” includes a scene involving the rape of a female character, and another where Turner, who is played by Parker, is harshly reprimanded for talking with a white woman.
Prior to Parker’s case coming into the spotlight, one of the film’s actresses, Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor, has spoken at film festival panels and to reporters about what she considers the movie’s poignant treatment of the issue.
Times staff writer Libby Hill contributed to this report.
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