Blackprint Roundtable: ‘Birth of A Nation’ and the future of Nate Parker’s career
This is a reprint of an article that first appeared in The Blackprint on Oct. 11. The original post can be viewed here.
Nate Parker’s film Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner’s 1800s slave rebellion, was released nationwide on Friday. Parker’s directorial debut has been at the center of controversy for months when his previous rape allegations gained widespread media attention.
People who want to support the film are also weary of the way Parker has addressed his past are at a crossroads: should they see the film? Are they condoning rape culture if they support this actor? Are they harming black art by not buying a ticket? The Blackprint e-board sat down to talk about the storm surrounding Birth of a Nation on social media and the larger conversations that have come with it.
What are the details behind Parker’s 1999 rape allegations when he attended Penn State?
When Parker was a student at Pennsylvania State University, he and his friend Jean Celestin, who co-wrote the movie’s script, were accused of rape. Both Parker and Celestin claim that they had consensual sex with the accuser, who committed suicide in 2012. While Parker was exonerated, Celestin was found guilty and sentenced to serve six months. Celestin was later released when victim was no longer available to testify at his retrial.
Jenna Caldwell, Engagement Editor: In his testimonial from the case, Parker says he was contacted by his accuser 50 days after they had intercourse, and she was in fear that she may be pregnant because her period was late. She simply wanted to call him and let him know. The day after this call occurred, she reported the incident as rape. According to court records, Nate Parker said she never appeared to be drunk, nor was she drinking around him. She appeared to be sober throughout the entire incident. He also believed she simply wanted to turn this into a rape case because she was in fear of having a multiracial child and being rejected by her parents. Parker says his involvement was consensual and she was upset he didn’t use a condom.
Taryn Daniels, Editor-in-Chief: There are a few problems with that. The first thing that stood out to me was the removed way he was talking. But he did raise a valid issue [in his testimony] - how the cop was very aggressive when Nate was making his statement. I guess the implication was that he was a black man, an athlete, and already assumed that he was guilty.
Elisha Brown, Editor: My big issue with the testimonials is that they took a lot time to build up to their telling of the rape. They were building this narrative of innocence. I know the stereotype of the Black brute-ish athlete is a real stereotype that Taryn brought up is pervasive, but it seemed like they were passing the blame.
Taryn: He’s also talking about her like she’s not smart. Instead of being genuinely concerned when talking to the girl, his mentality is, How do I get rid of this problem?
Jenna: I understand the part where he didn’t want to apologize. It would be an admission of guilt - almost like he did rape her. But from today’s point of view, him simply not wanting to speak about the rape case during an interview is troubling. It’s understandable for him to say he doesn't want to apologize, but he does have to say something. A simple,‘I do apologize if I was unaware of what consent was at the time,’ could do.
Lauren Lumpkin, Editor: If Nate was more open about what happened, it could help people have a better conversation about rape culture and what happens on college campuses. The truth is rape is a tricky thing and the details aren’t always clear. So instead of talking about rape and consent and working these issues out, we choose not to talk about it at all.
How has the definition of consent has changed since 1999?
Janell Roberts, Blackprint Promotions: [The exposure of] rape on campus changes depending on racial ideology, if we’re being realistic here. I remember looking at the coverage of Brock Turner case, then discussing how the Spelman rape story was completely ignored...If you’re a black woman in society who’s been raped or molested, you’re less likely to even being acknowledged. You’re pushed to the side. I’m not saying that’s for all cases, but it’s for the majority.
Taryn: I don’t know if I wholeheartedly agree with that, but I think there is a difference in the handling of cases depending on race. It’s hard to determine what happens to the survivors. Being in that situation is already a weird mind space and this country is already not good at handling [rape cases]. If there’s a black perpetrator, there is a lot of tainted coverage...We immediately vilify black men. It’s also hard to be a student on campus when you’re in that atmosphere. It really makes you wonder what you would do if it happened to you.
Elisha: I’m not saying I disagree, but I think we’re talking hypotheticals here. Barely any women report their rape at all. Or even sexual harassment cases. As far as comparisons between 1999 and today, I think it’s better -- people are starting to report. On our campus for instance, reports have gone up. People say that’s horrible, but now we have more resources like a Title IX officer. We still need resources, but at least people are coming forward.
Lauren: What we see now is a gap between past and the present - we’re having more candid conversations about rape that wouldn’t have happened 10, 20 years ago... Rape has been happening forever and it's unfortunate that we are only now holding attackers accountable. When you think about the 90s when Parker was in college, what happened was...maybe he didn’t think it was rape. But right now he knows better. We need to educate ourselves better.
Jenna: The biggest issue with the 1999 case is that matter of what consent means and them not being able to follow consent because they were uneducated. It reminds me of a project I did in grade school called Sadie Nash, in Newark, New Jersey, which is a city with primarily black people. We walked around and asked black men if they could define consent for us. Alarmingly, a majority of people were not able to. Now when you start college, at least at American, we must take sessions on consent and rape culture. This is something I don’t think could’ve happened in 1999.
What was the impact of Parker’s press tour for Birth of a Nation?
The actor spoke to Hollywood trade publications Deadline and Variety in August to pre-empt questioning about his past. The interviews backfired and brought the rape case to the attention of mainstream media and audience. In the week leading up to the wide release of the film, Parker appeared on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America to promote the movie. He was visibly uncomfortable when GMA’s Robin Roberts’ asked about the rape allegations and his refusal to apologize for his actions.
Janell: In his Ebony interview, Nate used toxic masculinity and his male privilege to justify why these incidents happen. It seemed nonchalant, like he didn’t care. To be in man in society with such a huge platform, you should really use it to reveal the cruel and unusual punishments of rape victims. One thing that really stood out to me was he was asked about consent:
“When I think back to 1999, I think about being a 19-year-old kid and, with all due respect, objectifying them. I have never thought about consent as a definition, especially as I do now.”
Like he said all of that, but there was not a single apology...it comes off as arrogant.
Elisha: I agree. While some of the things he said seemed genuine, like his push for people to talk about consent more, one thing that got lost is that [in the article] he said he hasn’t thought about the incident in 17 years. How could you not think about something like that?
I think he’s really messing up with his television appearances. Last Monday [during GMA] he was super defensive with his body language. He was like, ‘well yeah, I talked about that already last night with Anderson Cooper [on 60 minutes]’ - in like an edited, pre recorded interview...you don’t get to just bury this issue under the rug. We understand you’re also a black man in Hollywood - that’s hard, we get that. But he’s completely pivoting to his whole narrative of, ‘I’m a black man who has been smeared.’ That’s controversial. As black women, we could all be biased. But it seems a little tiresome.
Should he apologize or does it not even matter? Is it too late?
Jenna: I think the issue with him apologizing is that it would be an admission of guilt. I don’t think it would be in his best interest to apologize. If he did, he would be villainized by the media - although he already is. I guess there's no great outcome either way.
Will you see the film?
Taryn: I don’t think I’m gonna see it… it breeds an interesting narrative [slave narratives] amongst people who aren’t African-American. We need to start creating things that are a little different than that.
Lauren: I think I will see the movie. I’m also tired of slave movies, but I knew about Nat Turner and his story before this movie was a thing. For that reason, I do want to see the movie. There are also so many people in entertainment who have done terrible things. I think if I were to boycott every person in the entertainment industry who has done something awful, then there would be a lot of movies and TV shows that I wouldn’t be watching.