Who is Nate Parker?
Nate Parker is an actor, director, writer, and producer who's been in over a dozen movies, including Red Tails, The Great Debaters, Beyond the Lights, and The Secret Life of Bees. Interestingly enough, the 36-year-old Parker, who was an All-American wrestler in college, can trace his acting career to an especially fortuitous bout of serendipity.
While attending an event with his girlfriend, Parker (then a computer programmer) was discovered by a talent scout who encouraged him to make an audition tape and move to Hollywood.
That is quite serendipitous, indeed. So, why is he in the news today?
Two reasons. The first reason is that Parker is the star, co-writer, producer, and director of Birth of a Nation, a film about Nat Turner's slave rebellion. A Sundance Film Festival darling, the movie won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition, and was purchased by Fox Searchlight for 17.5 million dollars, a Sundance record. The consensus among those who've seen is that it should get quite a bit of Oscar recognition.
Wow. That's great for him. What's the second reason?
When Parker was a student at Penn State University, he and his then-roommate Jean Celestin (who also happens to be a co-writer of Birth of a Nation) were accused of rape. Parker claimed the sex was consensual; the woman who accused him claimed she was unconscious and unable to consent. Along with the rape, Parker and Celestin were accused of intimidating her.
Parker was exonerated, but Celestin was found guilty. He (Celestin) appealed the decision, and the case was eventually thrown out because the victim didn't want to testify again.
Various news outlets reported on this last week, and Deadline interviewed Nate Parker about it.
Wow. When did this alleged rape happen?
Hmm. Don't you think the timing of this being a news story is rather peculiar?
Well, this happened 17 years ago — while they were in college — and it's just now seeing the light of day, right after they created an explosive and controversial movie about Black slaves revolting and killing White people. It feels like there are hidden forces out there who don't want them to be successful.
Couple things. First, it's not like the news of Parker's history was on some special Google for stars of Black Netflix or some shit. A regular google would have found everything about the case. It resurfaced in the sense that more people are talking about it now, but it's always been there.
And more people are talking about it now because more people are talking about Nate Parker now. When he was starring in Rome & Jewel and Pride and Blood Done Sign My Name, no one — at least no one in entertainment media — gave enough of a damn about him to investigate his past. But he's a big deal now. And when you're a big deal with tens of millions of dollars invested in you and your project, everything about you and your past becomes media fodder. Particularly something as serious as a rape allegation. He's not the first and he won't be the last person — Black or White; man or woman — to make it big and then have some unflattering details about his life become news.
Still, don't you think it's unfair that, almost 20 years later, he's forced to answer questions about allegations he was found not guilty of? He was cleared! Why put this pressure on an innocent man?
"Not guilty" doesn't necessarily mean "innocent." It just means that the prosecution couldn't prove, beyond a reasonable doubt, that the allegations were true. (As far as the allegations themselves, here's a copy of the criminal complaint.) Let me put it this way: I doubt anyone reading this would consider George Zimmerman or the police officers responsible for Freddie Gray's death to be "innocent" even though they were technically found not guilty.
To be clear, I'm not saying Nate Parker was guilty. I'm just saying that it would be prudent to apply the same skepticism of the criminal justice system when the possession of that skepticism is difficult to maintain. We just can't dismiss those aforementioned not guilty verdicts as proof of a flawed system and then turn around and put all of our faith in the "rightness" of the courtroom verdict just because it allows us to support a movie without any moral conflicts.
And yes, this happened 17 years ago. But sexual assault isn't shoplifting or a bar brawl that led to a simple assault charge. This is still (and will always be) very relevant information.
Also, it has to be said that Parker's awkward statements when speaking of the case and his homophobic remarks about "preserving the Black man" by never playing a gay character haven't helped him in the least. His foot seems to be about shin-deep in his mouth.
What's next for Parker?
I don't know if the news about his past will have a major effect on how his movie is received. But I do know that he needs to hire a publicist. Or maybe just a better one.
(And, if you listen to the conspiracy theorists, he'll be buying NBC soon too.)