Actor Nate Parker was really looking forward to the release of his film “Birth of A Nation”, but he wasn’t expecting past rape allegations to prevent the story of Nat Turner being heard.
In 1999, a former friend of Parker’s named Tamerlane Kangas, testified that he and Parker’s other friend Jean Celestin were present in a Penn State dorm room while Nate Parker raped a woman. Kangas also stated that Parker invited him and Celestin to join in, which he claims only Celestin obliged.
Both Parker and Celestin admitted to having sex with the woman, but claims it was consensual, however the woman claimed she was unconscious. Parker was acquitted on all charges. The woman, whose name was omitted from reports, committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 30.
In an interview with Deadline Hollywood Parker says, “The fact we are making moves and taking action to protect women on campuses and off campuses, and educating men and persecuting them when things come up… I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college,”.
Gabrielle Union, who co-stars in the Nat Turner film, plays a rape victim, but in real life, the story hits closer to home than ever. Gabrielle wrote an open-ed addressing the allegations.
Twenty-four years ago I was raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store where I was then working. Two years ago I signed on to a brilliant script called “The Birth of a Nation,” to play a woman who was raped. One month ago I was sent a story about Nate Parker, the very talented writer, director and star of this film. Seventeen years ago Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault. Four years ago the woman who accused him committed suicide.
Different roads circling one brutal, permeating stain on our society. A stain that is finely etched into my own history. Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence.
Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.
My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control. It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice. It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen — other survivors, or even potential perpetrators.
As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said “no,” silence certainly does not equal “yes.” Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a “no” as a “yes” is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital.
As a black woman raising brilliant, handsome, talented young black men, I am cognizant of my responsibility to them and their future. My husband and I stress the importance of their having to walk an even straighter line than their white counterparts. A lesson that is heartbreaking and infuriating, but mandatory in the world we live in. We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else.
To that end, we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear “yes.”
Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago, after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcript, I still don’t actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room. But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize.
There is no proof that the death of the woman is linked directly to the 1999 incident. The woman was living in a drug rehab facility, where she overdosed on sleeping pills. During the trial, the woman admitted that she tried to kill herself twice after the alleged rape occurred. Her brother told Variety that she suffered from depression and PTSD.
Reports say that Parker told this story to Variety as a marketing ploy, in hopes to get support of the film, but it backfired.
“That was seventeen years ago,” he insisted. “My life will be examined and put under the microscope in ways that it never has.”
Fox Searchlight made a statement about the rape allegations. “Fox Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”
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