My goal for this site was to cover the fun and ever-changing world of pop culture. Unfortunately, darker stories frequently arise that leave me no choice but to discuss them. I have no idea how to properly address these types of scandals-I don’t have the answers, I don’t pretend to know the answers. All I do know is that I can try to make sense of this crazy, crazy world, and that, as citizens, you have a right to know the goings on of the world around you. So, with this all stated, allow me to delve right into things.
At this year’s Sundance Film Festival, the only thing anyone could talk about was The Birth of a Nation. Sort of an American Braveheart, the film was directed by, written by, produced by and starring a young African-American man named Nate Parker. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, a preacher who believed he was told by God to lead a slave revolt against the Southern aristocrats. The film was a smash, showing an austere but nuanced take on race relations throughout American history, and was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record setting $17.5 million. Coming in a very race-torn country in a year following a controversially lily-white Academy Awards ceremony, the film seemed poised to make a claim for several Oscar categories. Parker especially seemed ready to be nominated for Best Director and Best Actor. It seems that Parker is the newest Hollywood Hot Shot.
He was also accused of rape and subsequently ruining the life of a fellow co-ed when attending Penn State.
I mentioned back when I first started my Oscar Predictions section that Nate Parker had a dark past that could be brought up later this year. This is the story I was referring to. It appears I was ahead of the curve on this story, mainly because I know how to read a Wikipedia page and then Google old Pennsylvania news stories. I’m going to try to make sense of this story, in terms of what specifically happened, what it means for today, and where can we go from here.
So what specifically happened in 1999? Well, from the many articles and pieces I’ve read on the subject, here’s how I’ve come to understand the story. In 1999, Nate Parker was the popular star of the Penn State wrestling team. One night, he had a female (known from here on out as Jane Doe) that he had been seeing, his friend and teammate Jean Celestin, and an unknown fourth party over to his apartment. The quartet had too much to drink, the fourth party left, and shortly afterwards, Jane pressed charges of rape against Parker and Celestin. Parker and Celestin insisted that it was consensual, but the evidence didn’t necessarily support this declaration. Eventually, Parker’s relationship with Jane was dragged into court, and because she had given him consent in the past, the jury decided that this proved Parker was 100% innocent. It should be noted that in the seventeen years since the trial, this argument has been repeatedly shot down in rape cases, as consent in one instance does not mean consent in all cases, nor does it give consent in regards to a passed out individual. Celestin, meanwhile, was found guilty of rape, and sentenced to six months in prison-as the judge noted, “In order to make sure that he could attend his college graduation in 2001.” The university also “punished” the two boys by suspending them from the wrestling team. In response, Parker transferred to Oklahoma, and both men graduated from their respective universities with ease. Jane, meanwhile, ended up dropping out of Penn State. Her reason, court records indicate, was because of an effort to harass and threaten her for pressing charges against the school’s golden boys, an effort supposedly spearheaded by Parker. The threats became so traumatic that when Celestin appealed his case due to insufficient defense, she refused to testify a second time, and Celestin’s conviction was overturned and his record expunged. Jane ended up suing the school for their treatment of her case (or lack thereof), and received a settlement for $17,500 (Birth of a Nation would sell for 1,000 times this amount), and spent her remaining years in between failed suicide attempts over the incident before tragically succeeding in 2012.
This is a horrific story, and it touches on many issues still prevalent today. Hell, an Oscar nominee for Best Original Song last year was from a documentary about rape culture on college campuses, and featured actual victims in its performance during the show. This is a serious issue, and its effect on the film is certainly an interesting one. It begs the question “Can we forgive Nate Parker? Should we forgive Nate Parker? If not, what should we do about it? Not see his film?” It’s a tough question, and I’m not sure there is a right answer. It becomes even more infuriating when you realize that Celestin, the one actually convicted in the matter, is a co-writer on Birth of a Nation, further tarnishing this otherwise important film. However, there is one thing that I want to note about Parker. As I mentioned earlier, the evidence of this story has been around online since at least January. So why is it only becoming prevalent now?
Because Parker brought it up in a speech.
Let’s not be naïve about this whole thing: Parker clearly came forward about this to avoid controversy for his film’s Oscar and box office chances. But he still addressed it. And sure, he started out with the usual “She was awake. She gave consent. I thought it was ok.” (And, to be fair, if you listen to released voicemails, he does actually believe this to be the case, and she seems much more worried about what Celestin did to her). However, he then does something highly rare in these stories. He apologizes, and expresses remorse. No matter how many stories come out about accused rapists, even after they are convicted, these types of perpetrators never admit guilt. Take the recent case of Brock Turner: his entire case, and the story he continues to stick to, is that he thought she was awake, that “alcohol made me have sex,” and “I’ll forever regret those [twenty] minutes of action.” Make no mistake, he’s a little sh*t. But this is common amongst famous people accused of rape: Woody Allen, Bill Cosby, Roman Polanski, etc. They have never admitted their guilt in the slightest, and while this may make some sense if the evidence is circumstantial or in their favor (i.e. Allen), more often than not it is borne from a complete disregard for the victims, even after the evidence is overwhelmingly against them-and it is absolutely repulsive (i.e. Cosby). Unlike these cases, Parker came out and stated that he committed a grievous error all those years ago, he feels remorse, and all he can do is try to redeem himself each and every day. It’s not much, but it’s more than many accused rapists do: he admitted error, he didn’t victim-blame, and he is asking for forgiveness. Now, I’m not one that is 100% on board with forgiveness and rehabilitation. Criminals are criminals, let’s not beat around the bush. But by the same token, I’ve never been confronted with an instance of a criminal who seems to be truly asking for forgiveness (note: Parker supposedly did not know that Jane Doe had killed herself before the speech. The media itself was unaware until Tuesday afternoon). So the question is: is a person who committed a heinous crime in his past, and who seems to feel legitimate remorse over his actions, worthy of forgiveness? Especially if the act of forgiveness supports something to further another important cause (i.e. race relations)? I’m don’t know the right answer to that, and I’m not going to pretend to.
And now to become incredibly callous about this entire incident: many media figures are asking the question: “Does this scandal rule out Birth of a Nation from Oscar consideration?” Many Oscar pundits say yes, but these people clearly haven’t been paying attention. To quote the most recent season of BoJack Horseman: “The Academy does not look kindly on murder…Rape, they don’t seem to have a problem with.” This is a group that has not only nominated Woody Allen seven times and won once since he was accused, it allowed Polanski to win since he plead guilty. I think that Parker would be safe regardless of if he felt guilty or not (granted, those men do happen to be white and significantly richer than Parker, but that’s neither here nor there). But that isn’t the important question we need to be considering. The film is an important artistic statement for the black community-written by an African-American, produced by an African-American, directed by an African-American, and portraying an African-American hero who attempted to stand up for his rights, while also taking an important look at American History from 1831 to the modern day. The question we need to be asking ourselves is this: Does the Academy, as well as society, reward an important film about African-American history, especially a film supposedly quite well made and ingenious, at the expense of the memory of the victim? Or does the Academy right their wrong of snubbing victims’ rights at last year’s ceremony, banishing the film from their ranks for the sins of the filmmaker, but running the risk of yet again ignoring minority nominees and angering society? Is there any hope for an in-between in this day and age? It’s the Academy’s personal Kobayashi Maru-an unwinnable scenario. I have no idea what the proper approach is to this situation, and no matter which route they go, they will be ignoring a group that desperately needs their help via support and attention. But these are the questions that we, as a society, need to be asking ourselves, in order to work towards a better world for everyone, and to right the wrongs of our past, on a personal and a national level.
As a side note, I stated several times in this piece that Parker has made an effort for the forgiveness of society. However, if he really wanted to show that he has not only changed, but wants to help fight the rape culture that pervades our society, he should really become an advocate for victims. Use the college tours already planned to promote the movie to instead speak to students about the consequences of his actions on another human being. Set up a charity in honor of Jane Doe. And while we’re on the subject of charity, he should make a donation to It’s On Us. Speaking of which, if you are interested in making a difference yourself, click here to take the pledge and here to donate to the cause. Help bring an end to rape culture; not just on college campuses, but all over the country, and, hopefully, the world.
For more on the story, you can read Variety’s piece here.
For more information and postulating on the idea of Nate Parker in the world of restorative justice and rehabilitation, this article from Freddie deBoer at Medium is incredibly detailed and evenhanded.
While I’m normally not a fan of the site’s more extreme takes on things (I consider “hot takes” to be a waste of energy from either side, be they Breitbart or Vulture), Jezebel wrote a very intelligent piece on the subject, which you can read here.
And finally, Parker himself published a response to the news of Jane Doe’s suicide, which it is only fair to post here.