The Birth of a Nation is set for release Oct. 7, and despite its impressive, history-making reputation, it’s the film’s director and lead actor Nate Parker’s past rape allegations that have dominated the most recent headlines rather than the very important story of preacher-turned-freedom fighter Nat Turner.
“This is a film about freedom … resistance,” Parker exclusively told The Root. And while his statement is 100 percent truth, I’d be remiss if I ignored the controversy surrounding the talented actor. Seventeen years ago while attending Pennsylvania State University, Parker and his friend Jean Celestin (who has a co-writing credit on the film) were allegedly involved in a sexual assault of a young woman, who would commit suicide in 2012. Parker was acquitted and Celestin was initially found guilty of sexual assault. That conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify at a retrial.
The residue of this situation has clung to Parker, leaving many people planning to boycott The Birth of a Nation. Parker wants to tell those people that this film is bigger than him or the allegations. “This film is about Nat Turner. It’s about America,” he said.
When I questioned him directly about the sexual assault allegations, it seemed that Parker was poised to give me a straight answer, but he deflected, saying, “This film is about us not having control over our own bodies during that period of time. This story speaks to a system of oppression that was so destructive to the fabric of America, and so destructive to the black body.”
With any story of slavery, there is also a thread of rape. As history has shown us, many enslaved women were forced to lie with their masters. The Birth of a Nation tackles this uncomfortable subject gracefully, but it was difficult to ignore the parallel to Parker’s personal life.
Parker’s performance in this film is nothing less than amazing, and after watching it, I was left torn. My heart aches for the woman who accused Parker of sexual assault 17 years ago. My heart aches for all victims of sexual violence.
The Birth of a Nation was painfully brilliant. The full-on display of the brutalization of slavery was summed up with disturbing and cringeworthy imagery throughout, and I left the theater hoping that people would opt to see this. I agree with Parker’s reasoning that this film is bigger than he is, because it is.
There’s a song that keeps playing in my head when I think of Parker, the controversy and this movie: “I’m just a soul whose intentions are good/Oh Lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.” Nina Simone’s haunting voice lingers in my ears, and I think about mistakes I made some 17 years ago that I hope no one holds over my head.
I can empathize with Parker, but I realize he’s not the victim. And it seems that when the allegations made headlines, Parker wasn’t aware of that. His initial response was troubling, and he continued the attempt to clear his name, saying things like, “While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual … ” And these statements were extremely troubling, no matter how many now-I-understand-consent interviews he does with Ebony magazine.
There’s no denying that sexual assault is awful and wrong and should be punished. But whatever happened between Parker, Celestin and the victim that fateful night will forever remain known only to them. I cannot judge or condemn anyone. This is all that I know for sure: The Birth of a Nation is a hell of a film, and honestly, I do think it’s well worth a watch.
Check out our in-depth interview with Nate Parker: