1999 rape case still shadows actor

Nate Parker, who was  acquitted, is catching flak for intense promotional campaign of his new movie.

BY REBECCA KEEGAN
LOS ANGELES TIMES/TNS

When Nate Parker premiered his provocative drama about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the audience response was electric.

Nate Parker arrives at the 2016 Met Gala, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opening of Manus x Machina Fashion in an Age of Technology, on May 2 in New York City. (JENNIFER GRAYLOCK/SIPA USA/TNS)
Nate Parker arrives at the 2016 Met Gala, The Metropolitan Museum of Art opening of Manus x Machina Fashion in an Age of Technology, on May 2 in New York City.
(JENNIFER GRAYLOCK/SIPA USA/TNS)

After a fierce bidding war, Fox Searchlight acquired “The Birth of a Nation” for a record $17.5 million, and Parker, a first-time director, seemed to be barreling toward Oscar season with an air of inevitability.

Instead, a complex and tragic chapter from Parker’s past has placed the 36-year-old writer, director and star of “The Birth of a Nation” at the center of a roiling controversy over sexual assault.

Details of case
In 1999, while a scholarship wrestler at Penn State University, Parker was accused and acquitted of raping a woman. His roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who received a writing credit on the movie, was convicted in the case, but the verdict was overturned.

Parker had previously discussed the case in interviews, but many in Hollywood first learned of the story in recent days due to articles in the trade press that included harrowing new details about the case.

Deadline has posted the trial transcripts, which contain the woman’s allegation that she was unconscious during the encounter, and Variety reported that she committed suicide in 2012 at age 30, which Parker said he did not know.

Promotions continue
Many expected the filmmaker to withdraw from an intensive promotional campaign for the film. But in defiance of the conventional strategy that public figures take a break from appearances when such a story erupts, Parker seems determined to stay in the public eye and face whatever uncomfortable questions arise.

Although the studio declined to make him available for comment for this story, he appeared at a film festival in Martha’s Vineyard for a question-and-answer session moderated by Spike Lee and is scheduled to attend a series of events in the weeks before the film is released Oct. 7, including the Toronto Film Festival and a press junket.

Maintains innocence
Plans for a 12-city tour, which involves speaking to community groups and churches, are still in place.

“I understand how much confusion and pain this incident has had on so many, most importantly the young woman who was involved,” Parker said in a lengthy Facebook post about the case. “I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow.”

Parker has maintained his innocence in the case, and Fox Searchlight, the company distributing his film, has also issued a statement in support of him.

“Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State,” the studio said in a statement. “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.”

Praise for film
“Birth of a Nation” premiered to a rapturous standing ovation at Sundance in January, just as a controversy over an all-White slate of acting nominees rocked the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, prompting drastic rule changes designed to increase inclusion at the organization.

At the time, critics praised Parker’s film for its portrait of racial catharsis, and many in Hollywood hoped it would serve as a step forward in the ongoing debate about diversity in the film business.

Just seven months later, it seems clear Parker and his film will, instead, walk through a thicket of inflammatory social issues, as evolving views about sexual assault on college campuses collide with the long, deadly history of rape accusations against Black men.

High-profile case
Parker’s story has also come to light in a moment when accusations about sexual assault and harassment are being treated with a new seriousness, even in a case that results in acquittal.

Outrage over a six-month sentence for a Stanford University athlete convicted of assaulting an unconscious woman, and high-profile cases involving Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes have heightened sensitivities.

In 2001, the accuser, who was a White Penn State student, told the campus paper the Daily Collegian that she withdrew from the university after “harassment and endless threats I received.”

“What has been happening culturally in the last couple years with people finally, finally, talking about sexual assault and taking it seriously, we’ve never seen this happen before,” said Kristen Houser, chief public affairs officer for the National Sexual Violence Resource Center.

Other controversies
In previous controversies around filmmakers, audiences and academy members have already had a relationship with the artist, such as those surrounding Woody Allen, accused of rape by his daughter, Dylan Farrow, during the 2013-2014 awards campaign for the movie “Blue Jasmine,” and Roman Polanski, who could not travel to the U.S. during the 2002-2003 campaign for “The Pianist” because he still faced charges of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977.

But Parker, who has appeared in the films “Beyond the Lights,” “Red Tails” and “The Great Debaters,” is a new face to many moviegoers and to members of the film academy.

Parker’s film engages some of the very same issues that are surrounding him — “Birth of a Nation” includes a scene involving the rape of a female character, and another where Turner, who is played by Parker, is harshly reprimanded for talking with a White woman.

Prior to Parker’s case coming into the spotlight, one of the film’s actresses, Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor, has spoken at film festival panels and to reporters about what she considers the movie’s poignant treatment of the issue.

Times staff writer Libby Hill contributed to this report.

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