Nate Parker Eclipses Nat Turner

Filmmaker's actions Aug. 21, 1999 have taken precedence over those initiated by his protagonist Aug. 21, 1831.

This Sunday marks the 185th anniversary of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion. Just after midnight on Aug. 21, 1831, the Southampton County, Virginia slave instigated actions that would lead to the deaths of dozens of whites and hundreds of African-Americans including, eventually, his own.

Ahead of the traditional Telluride-Toronto kickoff of film awards season, this calendar date loomed as another date of prominence for The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker‘s acclaimed film about the rebellion. However, thanks to the twin punch of Deadline and Variety, another date and anniversary now hangs over the filmmaker and Fox Searchlight Sundance acquisition: Aug. 21, 1999.

That’s the date Parker and the film’s co-writer Jean Celestin, then students at Penn State, had a sexual encounter with a drunk woman. The two men were arraigned Oct. 21, 1999 on charges of rape and sexual assault. Parker was acquitted Oct. 7, 2001. Celestin was found guilty and subsequently appealed, leading prosecutors to drop of the case.

Media reactions to Parker and Celestin’s troubled personal histories continue to pour forth. Today on Jet.com, writer LaSha explains how she initially had differentiated the situation involving Parker and Celestin with the approach she previously took to the works of Bill Cosby and R. Kelly:

I had convinced myself that not making any further public endorsement of the film was enough. I planned to see it quietly. No one had to know that I supported Nate Parker. I have never been a fan of his. I don’t remember seeing any of his films. I was supporting the story, not the storyteller. The neutrality I detest in others was suddenly not so bad.

I, a Black woman, all too familiar with being preyed upon, stalked and even violated by a Black man, was satisfied to ignore this woman’s story, having persuaded myself that this one time, the fact that the accused wasn’t convicted was enough to grant him the benefit of the doubt. Just this once, the stone wall I usually erected for victims of assault crumbled. Just this once, maybe enough time had passed… Gradually, but not unconsciously, I had become privately what I loathed publicly.

And now, standing again after I have fallen from the high horse I rode so proudly, starts with me first accepting that art and artist are inseparable. As invaluable as Turner’s story is to me, it is not worth my conscience. I cannot afford the price of hypocrisy.

Another powerful perspective was offered earlier this week on Ebony by Texas Southern University alum and teacher Josie Pickens:

As a college professor who teaches mostly 18-20 year olds, I live with the reality that rape is a serious (and dangerous) crime that is heavily ignored (and often covered up) on college campuses. This is why, every semester, when I teach critical thinking and rhetoric to students, I make sure we have at least one conversation about rape and consent. And every semester, to my surprise and dismay, hardly any of my male students (and not enough of my female students) really understand what consent is (or that it is binary, or that it is “conditional on a participant’s ability to revoke their consent”).

My students are surprised that their drunk and drugged sexual encounters could very well be considered rape, because they believe that rape is sex performed forcibly by strangers in dark alleys, not with the girls and guys they crush on, flirt with and take back to their rooms after a night of partying. They are wrong, and they have been failed by the adults in their lives who are charged with sending them out to be safe – and to create safe spaces for others – in the world.