Nate, I’ve always liked you. With interest and enthusiasm, I’ve watched your career evolve, and have been eagerly anticipating the release of The Birth of a Nation—both enthralled with the clips I’ve seen and kicking myself for not making it to Sundance this year. This is a story that has long needed to be told, and I’ve been so excited that you had the initiative, talent and, ultimately, the record-breaking support to make it happen because, perhaps now more than ever, we need this film.
Surprisingly, I’d even managed to forgive the homophobic comments you made a few years back, since you’d seemingly reconsidered your outdated and toxic views on masculinity. I was saying as much when one of my homegirls said, “Oh, you never heard about the rape?”
Turns out, I was unaware of the allegations that plagued you at Penn State some 17 years ago. A quick trip to Google proved this information readily available; within minutes, I was reading a court transcript of witness testimony, which was—in a word—horrifying. In fact, despite your eventual acquittal, the accusations were almost impossible to disbelieve.
Both of us having been ’90s college kids, no doubt the sexually misogynist anthem “Ain’t No Fun (if the Homies Can’t Have None)” was still in heavy rotation when you were at Penn. I couldn’t help considering this while reading testimony that you beckoned your friends to join you in having sex with the allegedly unconscious girl you’d been intimate with prior. After the fact, according to reporting by Deadline, you told her: “I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean? … I really felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Disillusioned, I’ve since read extensively about the case and current controversy (including excellent pieces by fellow The Root writers Demetria Lucas D’Oyley and Damon Young). I’ve read damning articles and myriad comments from many ready to cape for you first and read court documents later, and others eager to condemn you outright.
Though I admittedly lack the cognitive dissonance to separate the art from the artist, I even courted conspiracy: Was this simply an attempt to dismantle the incredible—but undoubtedly incendiary—work you’d produced, before it even reached us? After all, this wasn’t the ongoing pathology of a serial predator; this was a single incident, nearly two decades ago, for which you’d been exonerated. Was it fair to still hold you accountable?
Then I read your own recent comments about the incident, in your now widely discussed interview with Deadline. While claiming to support women and reminding us that you are both a brother of sisters and a loving husband and father of five daughters (which is irrelevant in terms of potential pathology), your words somehow rang hollow as you sought to dismiss any detailed discussion of what you describe as “one of the most painful moments” of your life:
I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope. … 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.
Indeed, what can you possibly say or do? It’s perfectly understandable that you don’t want your current success to be eclipsed by something that happened 17 years ago. But here’s the thing: Your actions 17 years ago appear to have eclipsed a woman’s life. Court documents allege that you and your co-defendant—The Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin—harassed your accuser following her police report, which could only have added insult to alleged injury. No doubt you heard of her two purported suicide attempts at the time; but did you hear—as I recently did—that four years ago, she committed suicide and is now dead?
Nate, what causes me to question the content of your current character is your seeming disconnect and lack of empathy. While anyone rising to the heights that you are clearly destined for is also destined for scrutiny, your brilliance, success and fatherhood do not absolve you from accountability, particularly if or when your actions may have affected someone else so deeply. That is a responsibility that deserves some reckoning, and until then, I’m afraid that your pain is insignificant.
To that end, I think action is what is precisely needed here, more than words. You claim to care deeply for the safety of women and praise the fact that rape and consent are now openly discussed on college campuses (as I recall, they were in the ’90s, too). But what are you doing to personally ensure that 17 years or less into the future, your daughters are seen as more than bodies, solely responsible for both their own behavior and the behavior of the males they encounter?
As you know all too well, rape culture doesn’t just negatively affect women and girls. It affects men and boys, too; boys who may grow up to be men interacting with women you love. What are you doing to save those boys from the missteps and misunderstandings that could result in “painful moments” like yours?
When it comes to our celebrities, the black community is all too often asked to ignore its moral compass for the sake of solidarity. We’re expected to suspend our disbelief in hopes of a happy ending that has yet to even reach the horizon. For black women in particular, our love and support frequently must come at our own expense and betrayal. Therefore, it’s frustrating and disappointing that once again, we—those of us who love blackness and black men and who recognize the ongoing and desperate need for black stories like Nat Turner's—are forced to reconcile great art with the alleged dysfunction of its creator.
I still want to sit in a theater and watch Nat Turner once again come to life … but are you a good-enough actor to make me forget what I’ve read and heard? Will I be able to watch you without cringing every time you cross the screen, the way I do when I hear an R. Kelly song, or see a promotion for a new Woody Allen film, or glance at my collector’s set of The Cosby Show now collecting dust upon the shelf?
No, Nate, you can’t relive your life 17 years ago. If you could, I doubt you’d put yourself in a position where your character would still be questioned today. But even if you were entirely innocent then, you are uniquely qualified now to address the damage that lack of consent can do to young lives. It is your opportunity to take. Your redemption—and legacy—may lie in it.
To use your own words: “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing. … We can’t just skip the healing part and say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s in me, you and the air we breathe.”
You’ve stated that you wrote The Birth of a Nation from “the standpoint of a young man who didn’t have heroes growing up.” Nate, we need heroes. We don’t need them to be flawless, but we do need them to be accountable. Perhaps it’s not too late for you to be one.
Maiysha Kai is a Grammy-nominated singer-songwriter, fashion model, devoted auntie and Brooklyn, N.Y.-based, single black bombshell who recently strutted into her 40s. She is also an expert at oversharing who chronicles her attempts at dating—and adulting—on 40onFleek.