The Rev. Al Sharpton has pledged not to let Hollywood “discredit” and block actor Nate Parker’s plans to release his upcoming film The Birth of a Nation, which tells the story of an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner.
The movie, which won national praise from critics after its debut at the Sundance Film Festival in January, had been mentioned as an early contender for the Oscars.
But in recent weeks, Parker has been subjected to a firestorm of criticism around the fact that while a wrestling student at Pennsylvania State University in 1999, he and a friend, Jean McGianni Celestin, were charged with raping a female student.
Parker was acquitted of the charges, and Celestin—who collaborated with him on the writing of the film—was initially found guilty and sentenced to six to 12 months in county prison. He later appealed the conviction, and the second trial was dismissed when a judge determined that he had received ineffective counsel in the first trial and prosecutors declined to try the case again. The woman, who was ready to testify at the second trial, reportedly committed suicide in 2012.
Speaking before dozens of activists and supporters at the Harlem headquarters of National Action Network, the civil rights group that he founded in 1991, Sharpton said he believes that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences and the right-wing media are trying to use the incident to prevent a historical narrative about slave resistance from being shown in movie theaters.
“Now, all of a sudden, they rediscover what they already knew,” said Sharpton, who has been a fierce critic of the academy, even leading a boycott of the Oscars last February for its lack of diversity in Hollywood. “The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger.”
In an interview with The Root, Sharpton said that Parker—whom he spoke with by phone last week—admitted that he had made some mistakes in the aftermath of the court proceedings, but he has maintained that the sexual relationship with the woman was consensual.
“Nobody is justifying wrong, but if you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways,” Sharpton said, adding that he understands the many concerns that black women have raised over the past few days about the allegations. “All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?”
Sharpton blasted the academy for selecting “It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp” as the best original song in 2006 and awarding it an Oscar and said that he remains deeply concerned that films that depict positive aspects of black culture and history are routinely dismissed.
Sharpton’s embrace of Parker comes even as many celebrities have publicly distanced themselves from the 36-year-old actor-director-producer who gained national acclaim for his performances in The Great Debaters, Red Tails and The Secret Life of Bees. Actor Anthony Anderson has said that he, too, stands with Parker and has plans to see the movie.
Sharpton said that he has put the academy on notice and will continue to monitor the theater openings of the film across the country.
“Somebody has to have enough courage to tell the truth no matter what the consequences are,” said Sharpton, who called Parker’s attempt to “flip” the original Birth of a Nation movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan into a story about Nat Turner “bold and audacious.”
“All these millions of dollars these folks get paid, and they won’t tell our story,” Sharpton said. “All these elaborate homes they build, and they won’t tell our story. And here comes a man with a wife and five children who puts it all on the line, and you think I’m going to be quiet? We are going to stand up and tell our story.”
Jamal Watson is the senior staff writer for Diverse: Issues in Higher Education and the author of a forthcoming biography of the Rev. Al Sharpton. Follow him on Twitter.