There are a few of them, actually. Some really unsettling, uncomfortable problems. Nate Parker is the writer, star and director of The Birth of a Nation, a film that is already garnering deafening Oscar buzz. We’ve written about our excitement and the importance of The Birth of a Nation multiple times, especially after Nate’s remarkable Sundance journey. He is facing the highest of expectations going into awards season. This movie is supposed to be the sure-fire end to the #OscarsSoWhite streak. In the coming months, Nate Parker was poised to be the face of an astonishing story, both on screen and off.
But in the past few days, we’ve learned that Nate Parker might not be who we need him to be. First, there are his homophobic comments. I’ll come back to those. Then, there’s the time Nate Parker and his college roommate, who is also the co-writer of The Birth of a Nation, were charged with rape. Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin were roommates at Penn State in 1999 when they were accused of raping a fellow student after she passed out in their room. Parker and Celestin claimed the sex was consensual while the victim testified that she was unconscious and unable to consent. Parker was acquitted, Celestin was found guilty and later appealed. They were both athletes at Penn State, a school with a history of covering up horrendous acts to protect their athletic departments. This story is so f-cked. We’ll probably never know exactly what happened in that room but in light of what we know about campus rape and the disturbing details of this case, I choose to believe the victim.
On Friday, Deadline posted an interview with Parker addressing the case and the effect this may have on Fox Searchlight’s Oscar chances. Here’s how Deadline describes how the interview came to be:
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. He spoke about how he has grown as a man, a father and an artist since that night at Penn State.
Nate Parker is a man, a father to DAUGHTERS and an artist, if that wasn’t clear. He’s also an alleged rapist. When he talks about the case, he never outright admits the rape but he doesn’t deny it either:
“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.”
I’m not sure what the wife, the mom and the sisters have to do with anything other than to distract us from the serious allegations that Nate Parker raped a female student. The whole tone of the Deadline piece is troubling. It’s a tone that is far too familiar in light of recent high profile campus rape cases. The overwhelming narrative is that young men, if they are athletes or have promising careers ahead of them, should not be held accountable for their actions. To quote Brock Turner’s idiot of a father, they should not be defined by “20 minutes of action.” Similarly, Parker seems to be more concerned with how the incident affected him and not the victim.
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.
The victim dropped out of school and attempted suicide twice after both men harassed her on campus after the event, according to court documents. I’m sure she has to relive that period of her life every day. Should Nate Parker get to bury this just because he may have a great career?
We’ve gotten a lot of emails about this Deadline piece. A reader named Rachel wrote that she thought the writer was, “more interested in how the incident may affect Parker's Oscar chances then the seriousness of the actual charges.” She’s right. The talk of awards seems insensitive here. But there is something to be said about how meaningful this film is supposed to be. There are so few black male actors is positions like Parker’s. He’s a writer, director and star in a position to earn the greatest honour in Hollywood. If the film lives up to his expectations, Nate Parker will be a Hollywood hero who isn’t white. That means something.
In many ways, this is bigger than Nate Parker. The conversation about whether or not to separate the artist from the art comes up a lot but certain “artists” get to continue to gain prestige and success no matter what their past indiscretions are. See Woody Allen. See Roman Polanski. It also helps if you’re white. See Mark Wahlberg and Charlie Sheen.
The Birth of a Nation is an essential story. The film looks like an incredible piece of art. I don’t know how to rectify my new feelings for Nate Parker with my feelings for the film. I don’t know how to separate an alleged rapist from the guy who is committed to mentoring other filmmakers of colour. Should that even matter? I desperately want him to be the guy we thought he was.
To Deadline, Nate Parker talks about being an “honourable man” and what that means to him.
“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.”
This is where I come back to Parker’s homophobic comments. Not only did he say he would never play a gay character in 2014, he also made this comment to Essence in 2012:
“What I would never play? Anyone wearing a dress. We just need more images of me. We’ve been emasculated physically, metaphorically too many times for me to support it. For me, that’s where the line stops.”
How is this standing up for the LGBT community? Parker’s idea of masculinity is so f-cked up but it’s especially dangerous because he is—whether he’s worthy or not—a black role model. I’ve talked about the complex and problematic history between black men, masculinity and homophobia in the past. Nate thinks Hollywood “emasculates” black men if they aren’t playing whatever idea of a man he has in his head. His idea of a man is not gay and he doesn’t wear a dress. This is coming from one of the most powerful black men in Hollywood.
I don’t want to downplay how conflicted this all makes me feel. The way I was rooting for Nate Parker felt personal. Ask any person of colour what it means to see another succeed. They feel like family. I also really want to believe he didn’t do this because we need heroes who look like Nate Parker. Desperately. We don’t need more fodder for unjust stereotypes.
The Birth of a Nation is about a slave rebellion; it’s not a sugar-coated slave story about subservient black people. It’s badass. Does this movie still warrant our support? I think so. I still want to watch it. I still want to believe its message will reach the masses. I'm just sad. I’m sad for the victim and sad that it had to be these two men telling this story.
The Birth of a Nation deserves better than Nate Parker.