Op-Ed: Understanding the Nate Parker scandal

Nate Parker, director of the film "The Birth of a Nation," at CinemaCon 2016 Big Screen Achievement Awards in Las Vegas.
(Chris Pizzello/Invision/Associated Press)

The imbroglio now engulfing Nate Parker touches on some of our culture’s most explosive issues: the role of sports on college campuses, sex, alcohol abuse and race. Only when we see each of these as part of a volatile whole can we begin to judge Parker’s alleged crime.

Parker is the director of the forthcoming film “The Birth of a Nation,” a riveting portrait of the enslaved minister Nat Turner, who led a rebellion that killed nearly 60 whites. When Parker was a student wrestler at Penn State in the late 1990s, he and his teammate, Jean Celestin — who co-wrote “Birth of a Nation” — were charged, and tried, for the rape of a white female classmate. Parker and Celestin claimed the sex was consensual. The accuser claimed that she was severely intoxicated and therefore could not consent. Parker was acquitted at trial while Celestin was found guilty. Later his conviction was appealed, and prosecutors dropped the case.

There is little doubt that jock culture has been a bastion of male privilege for as long as there have been sports in our country. We hardly acknowledge it, but one of the perks of the male athlete is promiscuous sex. In every arena where professional sports are played, there are common scenes of engagement: Men contest each other on the floor, or field, and afterward, seek to outdo each other in the bedroom too.


In justly condemning toxic masculinity, we must not scapegoat Parker for widespread habits we would rather sweep under the carpet.

Many women are willing to satisfy these athletes’ lust. The culture of male privilege is met by a culture of female pursuit and adoration, or, at the least, of enchantment and infatuation. Although football and basketball players are the biggest stars, wrestlers draw female attention too. For every star jock there’s a star cheerleader, or perhaps a model.

But there is a far more problematic, unbalanced pairing that is hardly discussed in polite society: the jock and the female fan, or the jock and several female fans, either in seemingly endless succession, or, often, at the same time, with one or more men, engaging in no-holds-barred sex. This story plays out in colleges across the nation more than we care to admit.

When alcohol is added to the mix, the cocktail can be lethal. When I was the equivalent of an assistant dorm head as a graduate student at Princeton in the mid-1980s, one of the most difficult problems we confronted was bringing student drinking under control. Alcohol was more than spirits; it was a spirit unto itself, a culture of overindulgence and deflection, a way of resolving, or at least lessening, riddles of existence. The bottle promised to relieve pain and suffering, but never quite seemed to do so.

If a woman can’t give consent because she is intoxicated, the resulting sex is unquestionably rape. But excessive drinking often impairs the judgment of men and women who go on to have sex without a claim of sexual abuse. It is also the case that young people get intoxicated and have sex without either party remembering much of what they agreed to do before they drank. These matters are not so simple.

Race complicates the matter even more. After slavery, the myth took hold that black men lusted after white women. This belief helped to spark the rise of white terrorists determined to protect “their” women.

When white women embraced the taboo of interracial sex, they were often ostracized, even expelled, from white society. Black men were frowned upon for such actions, and when caught, often harassed, if not killed. Of course there has been a huge shift in the mores and folkways of our culture in the last half-century, but taboos persist, and Parker may have faced them in 1999.


So the controversy surrounding Parker brings together the perks of jock culture, with its chronic indifference to the lives of women, including claims of sexual violence, the culture of enchantment with athletes, the ample flow of alcohol, and the allure of interracial sex. That makes it exceedingly difficult to parse. But, in justly condemning toxic masculinity, we must not scapegoat Parker for widespread habits.


After he was charged with rape, Parker was indicted and tried before a nearly all-white jury. He was acquitted. It is legally true that he is not a rapist. Others conclude, however, that he is morally guilty of rape. But that is a harder case to make: the events of the night in question are in dispute. The accuser said Parker asked her out to a restaurant that night; he said she invited him. The accuser said she was grossly inebriated and unaware of what was happening; Parker said she was coherent, active and “all for it.” Some say that if Parker invited Celestin to join him in bed, the sex couldn’t have been consensual; but the unacknowledged frequency of sex between multiple partners makes that claim questionable.

Of course one of the hugely disconcerting facts of rape is that women’s words are not taken seriously – their views are often resented, or rejected, and their claims are not believed. That does not mean, however, that in every case where the facts are murky, the benefit of the doubt should go to the accuser. Although the courts are vastly imperfect, they remain the arbiter of such matters.

Neither can we dismiss the appearance of a racial double standard. While the American Film Institute recently decided to postpone a screening of “The Birth of a Nation,” it has feted Woody Allen, who has also been accused of sexual abuse. (He was investigated and not charged.) Roman Polanski received an honorary Oscar despite having been charged with the rape of a 13-year-old girl. He has been, since 1978, a fugitive from American justice.

The point is not to desegregate injustice and integrate the gallery of rogues. The point is that Parker is having his case relitigated in a court of public opinion – much like women who are denied justice to begin with and who pay the price with soiled reputations and questioned motives.

Two wrongs don’t make a right. For those who think he is guilty, he is getting what he deserves. While they may be sure they are right, their feelings and beliefs cannot by themselves form the basis of a reasonable insistence that Parker now do penance for a sin for which he was cleared.

I do not believe that there is a widespread conspiracy to deny Parker his due because he has directed an astonishing account of a slave rebellion. I do believe, however, that many will feel threatened by the film’s uncompromising exploration of black rebellion. Parker’s film brilliantly details the religiously inspired resistance to white supremacy that is a necessary corrective to the existing cinematic record. His film snatches the title from D.W. Griffith’s troubled, and racist, classic – that, ironically, portrays black men as rapists of white women who need to be contained – and offers America a new lens on a forgotten landscape.

Nate Parker had his day in court. He deserves to be judged by another jury – those awarding prizes, and those who vote with their pocketbooks and purchase tickets to see a film that can change minds about what remains America’s original sin.

But if the controversy that surrounds this film can also change minds about rape and the culture that sustains it, a culture that makes us all complicit in its persistence, then Parker’s film will have usefully robbed D.W. Griffith twice: he will not only have taken the racist master’s title and given it new meaning, but he will have removed rape from a black-and-white context and given it a far more nuanced, complicated and, finally, powerful hearing beyond the silver screen.

Michael Eric Dyson is author of “The Black Presidency.”

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