Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is already a lightning rod of a film considering the reaction the movie experienced right out of the gates at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Not only did the title – which was directed, co-written and stars Parker – nab both the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award but was acquired by Fox Searchlight in a record-setting $17.5 million deal. The film established itself early as possible awards contender. The film tells the story of Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher who lead a revolt in the antebellum South. Yet, just as the film inches towards its theatrical run, concerns are coming into play stemming from a controversy from Parker’s past.
Back in 1999, when Parker was a student and wrestler at Penn State, he and his roommate Jean Celestin (who co-penned The Birth of a Nation) were charged in raping a young woman after a night of drinking. Parker was eventually acquitted, in part, due to testimony of consensual sex with the accuser prior to the night in question, however Celestin was found guilty and was sentenced to six months in prison. (Celestin attempted to appeal the verdict and was actually set for a new trial but couldn’t proceed because the victim chose not to testify again.) Parker addressed the incident in a recent interview with Variety, stating “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is” — he took a long silence — “I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
This matter unraveled further with the recent development that woman involved took her life at the age of 30 back in 2012. This was confirmed by both her family members and official public records. In a report over at Variety, the woman’s brother – only known as Johnny to maintain anonymity – commented, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point. The trial was pretty tough for her.” On the reception that Parker and Celestin have received for The Birth of a Nation, Johnny stated, “His character should be under a microscope because of this incident. If you removed these two people, the project is commendable. But there’s a moral and ethical stance you would expect from someone with regard to this movie. I don’t think a rapist should be celebrated. It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.” Parker recently commented again, taking to Facebook:
Which calls concerns over the movie’s upcoming release and planned awards run. Fox Searchlight is planning an aggressive and ambitious launch for the film which – as specified in the Sundance deal – was set to include Parker trumping the film across churches and college campuses. The studio’s only public comment so far was, “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.”
In the past, we’ve seen sexual abuse controversies stemming from the likes of Oscar-winning filmmakers like Woody Allen and Roman Polanski and while both have endured tremendous artistic success throughout their careers, the past seems to rise to the surface both in the press and the cultural consciousness nearly each and every time they have a new film arrive. We shall all see how this narrative continues to unfold for Parker. The Birth of a Nation is next set to screen at the upcoming Toronto Film Festival and will open in theaters on October 7th.