In August of 1999, while roommates and teammates on the wrestling team at Penn State University, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin were charged with raping a woman (who will remain anonymous) while unconscious, although they claimed that sex between all involved parties was consensual, and also that Parker and the woman had previously had consensual sex with one another before. This consensual sex between Parker and the woman, which Parker testified to, is what prevented him from being convicted and sent to prison, whereas Celestin was sentenced to six months of prison time after he was found guilty of sexual assault. Celestin was granted another trial in 2005 but due to prosecutors deciding that it would be quite difficult to locate all former witnesses from the previous trial, the case was overturned.
Fast-forward to January of 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival where The Birth Of A Nation premiered. Nate Parker’s directorial debut about the bloody and violent slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831 at Southampton County, Virginia was also written by Parker and Jean Celestin, and it won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. It was purchased by Fox Searchlight Pictures for $17.5 million. Many people in Hollywood saw the film and its director as instant contenders at next year’s Academy Awards, which is largely why Nate Parker invited a reporter from Deadline.com to his home for a lengthy and shocking interview about the rape allegations he and Celestin dealt with when they attended Penn State.
“I was sure it would come up,” Parker said. “It is there, on my Wikipedia page, the Virginia Pilot … I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”
Parker made clear that the case does not define his attitude toward women. “Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband,” he said. More, Parker acknowledged and applauded a growing intolerance for sexual violence: “The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up. … I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college.”
But Parker has no plans to rehash the episode as he introduces the film, and continues his career. “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope,” he said. “What do I do? When you have a certain level of success, when things start to work, things go under the microscope and become bigger and bigger things. I can’t control people; I can’t control the way people feel. What I can do is be the most honorable man I can be. Live my life with the most integrity that I can, stand against injustice everywhere I see it, lead charges against injustice against people of color, against the LGBT community. That’s me. The black community is my community, the LGBT community too, and the female community. That is my community. That me, it’s who I am. When I made this film, I said, ‘If you’ve got injustice, this is your film. And I’m coming.’ That is the legacy I want to leave behind. 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.”
As if all of that wasn’t enough to drastically change how people viewed both Nate Parker and the film he was promoting, another article was soon published that revealed that the woman who accused Parker and Celestin of raping her had committed suicide in 2012.
From the article in Variety (the deceased woman’s brother is identified only as Johnny to protect his late sister’s anonymity):
There’s no evidence that the woman’s death was directly linked to the trial. She died at a drug rehabilitation facility, where she was found unresponsive by staff with two 100-count pill bottles of an over-the-counter sleep aid with ingredients similar to Benadryl by her side. “It’s just a horrible life’s progression,” the coroner told Variety. “She was a young woman.”
In court, she testified that she had attempted to kill herself twice after the reported rape. Her brother said that she suffered from depression after the incident. Her death certificate, obtained by Variety, stated that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse….”
After the trial, the victim left college before graduating, and received a settlement from Penn State of $17,500. “She was trying to find happiness,” Johnny said. “She moved around frequently and tried to hold a job. She had a boyfriend. She gave birth to a young boy. That brought her a good bit of happiness. I think the ghosts continued to haunt her.”
Looking back, he doesn’t think that Penn State did its part to keep his 18-year-old sister safe. “I must admit Penn State has a horrendous record,” he said, referring to the former football coach at the University convicted of molesting children. “And Jerry Sandusky is just the tip of the iceberg. The University has a history of protecting [athletes].”
“If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point,” Johnny told Variety. He said that prior to entering college, his sister was an outgoing, popular girl who loved animals and school. He envisioned a career in marketing or media for her. “The trial was pretty tough for her,” he said.
Nate Parker responded to this news with a post on his Facebook page:
I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow…I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can’t help but think of all the implications this has for her family.
I cannot- nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial. While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, 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.
Before any of this came to light, there were many people who were looking forward to seeing and supporting The Birth Of A Nation, as well as throwing their support behind Nate Parker to have the same kind of success as a writer/director that Ava DuVernay continues to experience. However, after all of this came to light, it seems that the ever-increasing opinion (at least on Twitter) seems to be: “Fuck Nate Parker and fuck this movie. I can stay home and read a book about Nat Turner instead.” Because as disappointing as this is — as well as the fact that John Boyega didn’t write and direct the film instead so that the hard work of so many others wouldn’t be tainted and overlooked — it’s even more heartbreaking and infuriating that rape culture has once again reared its head in so many ways.
Rape culture will have you reading these excerpts from Nate Parker’s interview with Deadline…
Parker, with Fox Searchlight’s support, has decided to face this 17-year-old legal matter, head on. Hours before receiving the prestigious Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute, Parker invited a Deadline reporter to his home Thursday — remnants of the five daughters who live with him all around — to look him in the eye and discuss the case.
I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”
Parker made clear that the case does not define his attitude toward women. “Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband,” he said.
…and cynicism will have you raising an eyebrow at this as you can’t help but wonder: “Is he really pulling the ‘Some Of My Best Friends Are Black’ card in how he talks about his wife and his daughters like this? And about how his mother lives with him, too?”
Rape culture will have you reading the part where Nate is welling up and about to cry and you can’t help but think, “Well, he is an actor. And actors are able to shed tears on cue when they have to,” while also remembering the wise words of one Willow Rosenberg: “I’ve seen honest faces before. They usually come attached to liars.”
Rape culture will have you sighing with familiar anger and frustration as you realize that both Parker and Celestin were not only students at Penn State, but they were athletes. As past events at Penn State have illustrated, students with athletic ability are treated less like regular human beings and more like untouchable gods for whom suffering the consequences for one’s actions is a ridiculous and unfamiliar concept.
Rape culture will convince you to hire a private investigator to assist you and your roommate in stalking and harassing all over campus the woman who is accusing you of raping her, all because she is willing to call you out on the fact that both you and your roommate clearly ain’t shit.
Rape culture will also include having to once again read the horrible and misinformed opinions of strangers (and also family, friends, co-workers) on social media as they say things about sexual assault like:
Rape culture will remind you once again that men — actual people over the age of 18 who are permitted to live on their own and pay bills and even join the military if desired — can and will do something stupid and hurtful and reckless, like oh I don’t know, destroy public property, indulge in public urination, get into arguments with security and then lie to the media about it so that everyone believes that you were robbed by brown people at gunpoint, and you can still be referred to as ‘kids’ who are deserving of a break, and who will never again have to worry about their integrity being called into question. Such leniency isn’t applied to actual kids who do things like play by themselves with a toy gun in the park and it certainly isn’t applied to women who find themselves being questioned, doubted, and slut-shamed about the possibility of them lying to the authorities and submitting false accusations about being physically assaulted (just ask Amber Heard) and about being raped, despite the fact that such false accusations are incredibly rare, and that they happen almost as often as rapists actually being convicted for their crimes in a court of law.
Rape culture is not being able to see (or just purposefully ignoring) the irony of you telling people to forgive and forget and to look past a shameful incident from your youth, while promoting a film that focuses on a violent incident from a shameful part of history so that none of us will ever forget what was done.
Rape culture exists. Whether men want to believe it or not.
Nate Parker benefited from this, which is why he was able to avoid spending many of his days in a jail cell.
Rape culture helped destroy the life of the woman who accused him and Jean Celestin of raping her.
Nate Parker will have to answer many a question while promoting The Birth Of A Nation, and whether his film will be an Oscar contender should be the absolute least of his worries.