Since it swept the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prizes and sold in a stunning $17.5 million worldwide rights deal to Fox Searchlight at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has been considered a front-runner film in the Oscar race. The wrenching, brutal depiction of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising in 1831 Virginia was a welcome respite from the outcry over a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees the past two years that haunted the Academy and led to sweeping overhauls. Who better to root for than Parker, an actor who, not satisfied to be considered a name on a casting director’s list, wrote his own second act and scripted, directed, produced and starred in a film considered every bit as powerful as 12 Years A Slave?
A brewing controversy threatens to challenge the trajectory of that inspiring narrative. Memories of 17-year-old rape charges waged against both Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares co-story credit with Parker) while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999 left Fox Searchlight in full crisis mode these past weeks, scrambling to figure out how best to protect its sizable investment and Oscar chances by getting in front of a disclosure that is bubbling up in the mainstream press. The transcripts of the trial are public record and readily available, as Deadline discovered — the clerk there offered that numerous inquiries have been made recently — and the play-by-play is a sordid he-said-she-said affair that pitted a female student against Parker and Celestin. She claimed both men had sex with her after she had passed out in their room following a night of drinking. They claimed the encounter was consensual. Traumatized, she subsequently dropped out of college, and attempted suicide, per court documents. Parker, who had an earlier mutually willing sexual encounter with the student, was acquitted of the charges. Celestin initially was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal and his case was not retried.
Why would an incident that ended in Parker’s acquittal nearly two decades ago be at all relevant in a movie that took place in Antebellum Virginia? It wouldn’t, if Parker — who studied management science and information systems with the intention of a career in IT, computer programming and management before he fell into acting — hadn’t remade his career to where he is on the cusp of being an A-list writer-director, and potential Oscar front-runner. Oscar history tells us there are no secrets during awards season. Having become fully aware of those old charges in the months since it bought the film, Fox Searchlight has been looking to pre-empt any late-season bombshells that might land while voters have ballots in hand. Also, one of the flash points for the uprising in The Birth of a Nation is the brutal rape of Turner’s wife Cherry, which strikes a match that flares into murderous rebellion against white slave-holders and the institutionalized cruelty that has never been exposed to this level in a major film.
Parker, with Fox Searchlight’s support, has decided to face this 17-year-old legal matter, head on. Hours before receiving the prestigious Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute, Parker invited a Deadline reporter to his home Thursday – remnants of the five daughters who live with him all around – to look him in the eye and discuss the case. He spoke about how he has grown as a man, a father and an artist since that night at Penn State. And how he is determined not to let his worthy film be defined by that case, lest it detract from his mission to use Turner’s story as a catalyst for discussion on the turbulence between blacks and whites that has roiled major cities across the country this year. He firmly believes some of these tensions are connected to that shameful chapter of slavery in America.
“My responsibility as a filmmaker, an actor, an artist and an American is to say this period in history was more egregious than we were led to believe, and it had an impact on all of us,” Parker said of the film. “Frederick Douglass said, ‘When I became free, I began to see the impact that slavery had not only on the slave but on the slave master.’ My film doesn’t shake a finger at someone for being born in the ’90s with pink skin. It says that because you were born in the ’90s, you have some stuff that might live in your heart and the hearts of those around you. Let’s collectively address that. For the person with brown skin, who was born in the ’80s or ’90s, you weren’t born into slavery in 1831, but we have all inherited stuff we didn’t create.”
For Parker, the film is about curing through catharsis. “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing,” he said. “We can’t just skip the healing part and say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s in me, you, and the air we breathe. If I have a gash and it’s infected, one of two things is going to happen: Put some alcohol and let it burn away infection, sew it up and heal it, or it gets worse to the point real complications occur that maybe had nothing to do with that initial gash. That is what we’re dealing with.”
That same painful form of confrontation is how he has chosen to handle the rape case whose memory is rearing back up. Parker was acquitted in 2001 of raping a woman in his apartment while a wrestler at Penn State; Celestin was initially convicted of sexual assault but the conviction was later set aside, and a planned re-trial was dropped as witnesses became unavailable. The case caused heated battles on the Penn State campus, where some black supporters said Parker and Celestin were victims of false charges and treated poorly by the administration, while women’s advocates accused the university of failing to protect the alleged victim. In a 2002 complaint filed in the United States Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania, the Women’s Law Project represented the woman in a “Jane Doe” suit against the university (read it here). It ultimately was settled for a small cash payment and a promise to review sexual harassment practices at the school, which later suffered massive humiliation when a football coach, Jerry Sandusky, was charged with molesting eight boys between 1994-2000.
“I was sure it would come up,” Parker said. “It is there, on my Wikipedia page, the Virginia Pilot … I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful, for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”
Parker made clear that the case does not define his attitude toward women. “Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband,” he said. More, Parker acknowledged and applauded a growing intolerance for sexual violence: “The reality is, this is a serious issue, a very serious issue, and the fact that there is a dialogue going on right now around the country is paramount. It is critical. 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.”
But Parker has no plans to rehash the episode as he introduces the film, and continues his career. “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope,” he said. “What do I do? When you have a certain level of success, when things start to work, things go under the microscope and become bigger and bigger things. I can’t control people; I can’t control the way people feel. What I can do is be the most honorable man I can be. Live my life with the most integrity that I can, stand against injustice everywhere I see it, lead charges against injustice against people of color, against the LGBT community. That’s me. The black community is my community, the LGBT community too, and the female community. That is my community. That me, it’s who I am. When I made this film, I said, ‘If you’ve got injustice, this is your film. And I’m coming.’ That is the legacy I want to leave behind. I can’t change anything. You move forward, and every moment you’re alive, you’re living in the moment. I continue to fight for what’s important to me and I will, no matter how deeply I go under this microscope, no matter how bright the spotlight, I will fight against injustice in everything I do. And I will raise children and try to leave a legacy that points to that desire to see the changes happen that I’ve fought for.”
In an email on Friday, Celestin said: “This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of. I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career. I have several exciting book and film projects that I am working on and that I am looking forward to.” Celestin said he joined Parker in co-creating The Birth of a Nation in order to present Nat Turner in what they see as his proper historical context. “Nat was a hero buried in the graveyard of fear and distortion,” Celestin said.
For its part, Fox Searchlight, the prestige distributor that most recently steered Slumdog Millionaire, 12 Years a Slave and Birdman to Best Picture wins, is standing behind Parker. “Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State,” Searchlight 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.”
Neither Searchlight nor Parker would say specifically when the studio learned of the Penn State incident, but clearly it seems to have happened when the distributor bested numerous offers, including a $20 million commitment from Netflix. Said Parker: “I never felt the need to introduce all the obstacles in my past when I say, ‘Hello, my name is Nate.’ But at the same time, I’ve never hidden from it. It’s public record, and in fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve talked about it on the record. Anytime anyone has asked me about this, I’ve been open. It’s tough reliving it, 17 years after the fact, but I never hid it from Fox. The last 48 hours, it was something we discussed and I’ve always said I live in truth. I don’t know how these things work, who to talk to and what to say, but I have been very clear with everyone. Anyone who wants to talk to me, I will talk to them. The issue itself is so serious and I care deeply for the rights of women, and I care very deeply for the safety of our women and our students. And with this thing, all I can do is keep telling me the truth.”
In the past, real-life controversies have landed on awards contenders with varying effect. In 2002, claims that Nobel Laureate mathematician John Nash had anti-Semitic leanings did not keep A Beautiful Mind from winning the Best Picture Oscar and a total of four wins out of seven nominations, and Roman Polanski won the Academy’s directing prize for The Pianist even though he remained a fugitive on a still-unresolved sex charge in the U.S. But Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, for instance, appeared to suffer from a clash with congressional authorities and some Academy members over its approach to the effectiveness of torture in terror investigations; though heavily nominated in 2013, the film was blasted publicly by three prominent U.S. senators and won only one Academy Award, for sound editing.
As Parker pointed out, the charges against him and Celestin were never a secret. The case had been reported in local news media, and leaked into a handful of blogs after Fox Searchlight bought the film in its precedent-setting deal at Sundance. Still, prior disclosure didn’t soften the 2014 furor around Woody Allen’s film Blue Jasmine, when the director’s estranged daughter Dylan Farrow used an open letter on a New York Times blog to renew claims that her father had abused her as a child. While that case had been investigated and Allen wasn’t charged, Blue Jasmine won only one of the three Oscars for which it was nominated, with Cate Blanchett winning Best Actress.
So it is difficult at this point to weigh how history will impact Parker’s historical biopic in the harsh light of the upcoming awards season, especially in a post-Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes era when even an allegation of rape creates stigma, and where Mel Gibson was ostracized for merely saying objectionable things while drunk. Also troubling here are allegations made by the female student in her civil suit against Penn State, that Parker and Celestin harassed her repeatedly after she filed a police report, in part by having a private investigator show her photo around campus. And, she claimed, by taunting her with sexual epithets and “shadowing her as she moved throughout the campus.” Twice in the months following her police report, the woman attempted suicide, according to her suit.
The encounter and its long aftermath began on August 21, 1999, when the female college freshman — according to a report she filed nearly two months later — went to an apartment shared by Parker and Celestin after drinking heavily (atop a dose of Prozac), and, as all three of them ultimately acknowledged, had sex with both men.
The woman was named in trial records but generally was not identified by name in media reports, and Deadline will not name her here. Celestin and Parker were tried together; but most records of Celestin’s subsequent legal fight are not publicly available, a representative of the Centre County court system said.
At trial, the woman testified she was intoxicated, unconscious through much of the encounter and upset to find she had experienced unwanted sex with Parker — though she acknowledged having willingly engaged in oral sex with him during an encounter the day before. More, she said she was shocked on becoming briefly conscious to find in her mouth the penis of another man, who was later identified as Celestin.
Read a portion of the trial transcript here.
In a phone call taped without the permission of Parker or his roommate, the woman falsely claimed to be pregnant, in what she said was an attempt to get him to identify the third sexual partner in the room that night. The police later monitored a second call during which both Parker and Celestin generally admitted the sexual encounter but insisted it was consensual.
“I’m not try, trying to be mean, but, I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean?” said Parker. “I really felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.”
Read a partial transcript of the call here.
At trial, a third man, Tamerlane Kangas, testified that Parker waved him and Celestin to join him when they spied Parker and the woman having sex in the bedroom. While Celestin accepted the invitation, Kangas declined, and left the apartment. He was not charged with any crime. “I didn’t believe that four people at one time was — you know, it didn’t seem right,” he testified.
Both Celestin and Parker said in their statements that the woman was conscious and willing. Celestin added that she “she pulled me into her mouth and used both her hand and her mouth to stroke my penis.”
Read both defendants’ statements from the trial record here.
With his acquittal on October 5, 2001, Parker was legally in the clear. Celestin was acquitted of the rape charge but convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to between six and 12 months in jail by Judge Thomas Kistler. The Superior Court later found the sentence too lenient under Pennsylvania guidelines and increased it to between two and four years. But Celestin prevailed in an appeal and never faced re-trial.
Apart from the resurfaced sex crime claims, Fox Searchlight has been working to engage both black and white audiences with a movie that poses tougher inherent challenges even than its slavery-themed Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave. While Slave, directed by Steve McQueen, was a story of survival — with a white redeemer, played by Brad Pitt — The Birth of a Nation is more purely a tale of resistance. Beginning with the real-life rebel Nat Turner, it creates a story of necessary, even patriotic, struggle for liberty. Turner’s wife, who barely surfaced in most historical accounts, becomes an emotional anchor, and her rape is a flashpoint for his rebellion.
Parker said he wanted to make a film that fell in line with films like Braveheart and Defiance, where the oppressed rose up against the oppressors.
“The reality is, I wrote this film from the standpoint of a young man who didn’t have heroes growing up,” he said. “I lived in an environment where the idea of a black, intellectual person of faith, that had integrity, respected his community and was willing to sacrifice for everyone, was an oxymoron. These things just didn’t seem to exist in the same space, ever.
“We were offered basketball players, I saw drug dealers, all types of role models, but the idea there was a man who existed in history, that there was a true story about someone that stood up against injustice, sacrificed everything he had in the name of God, in the name of good against evil, I had never seen anything like that. And it wasn’t taught. I knew about Patrick Henry, and Eli Whitney and the cotton gin, but in my education I never learned about black men who did powerful things. It wasn’t taught then and it’s not really taught now. I grew up in Norfolk, Virginia, which is 42 miles east of Southampton County where Nat Turner and the slave revolt happened. And I had never heard of him. They just don’t teach it, and where I came from, there is no encyclopedia of black issues and social progress in the black community. All we learned about were people in the history books. I can go get my 18-year-old’s history book right now, flip through it and you don’t see Nat Turner. He’s just not there.
“I walked around feeling, in a sense that people of color, we began at the bottom of a slave ship,” Parker said. “We were enslaved, we picked cotton. There was Honest Abe, who wore a top hat and was taller than anyone and who said, ‘Enough is enough, slavery must end.’ And then, black people could stand up again. But after that, we didn’t catch up. Then civil rights happened, and we are fighting not to be lynched. And then, we have a black president and everything is fine. But then it is not fine, because people are getting killed in the streets. That has been the narrative of people of African descent in this country. It’s a very victimized experience. It’s not empowering and not aspirational. A sense of pride wasn’t something I associated with. If anything, I wanted to assimilate. To just make money and provide for my family, and get them out of the projects. Get as much as I could, do as well in school as I could. There was no real context of the African experience. And then I learned about Nat Turner.”
Parker recalled that moment, vividly. “I said, ‘There was a black guy back then who, first of all, could read?’ That sounded odd. He was a preacher? That must have meant he was docile and passive. Wait, no, no, he stood up against slavery, and people stood up with him? And then he fought, and died, he was hung and was skinned and his flesh was crushed to grease, all for me? That gave me a sense of pride. Braveheart, for the black community, it has just never happened.
“A lot of times when we see stories about slavery, it’s in the context of our endurance; it’s never within the context of our resistance,” Parker said. “I think it’s important for people to see that, yes, there was someone who stood up. There’s a sense of pride in that. Also, there’s a sense of healing. I didn’t make a film about bad white people and good black people, so cut and dry that you can walk out and be angry. Sure, there is anger, but when you look at the baggage we bring into the room, the anger is less about black people being hurt by white people and then black people killing white people. It’s more that a system could have existed, one that would encourage human beings to treat other human beings that way. That is what makes us angry, the same way that when you watch Braveheart and the woman’s throat is cut, or you watch the scene where they take the guy’s wife and you’re thinking, ‘Human beings did this to other human beings?’ It is only our baggage as Americans in this country that we walk into it with the idea that, ‘I’m angry and this could inspire black people to be angry at white people.’ No, no, no. This is a healing process that exposes things for all of us, and which needs to happen to this injury we’ve carried, this post-traumatic stress that a lot of us who are pink and brown in this country have lived with. Above all else, I wanted to create a film to create a conversation about healing. … I made a film I hoped could start a conversation, and be a conduit for healing as Americans. That is a culture shift, something people dream of. And I can do it with someone who, race aside, stood for God.”
To Parker, the story of Nat Turner was “like Braveheart, Troy, Gladiator, all the things we’ve never had within our community. It gives me an opportunity to effect change, and to make my mom proud, my grandmother proud and my kids because I took on something that was bigger than me. Nina Simone said an artist’s job is to reflect the times. In my activism, I’m not one who talks about everything being wrong, and then not present an answer. One of the things we are recording now, to go in front of the film, is, after you watch the film, talk about it. Have a 30-minute conversation with anyone. It can be your spouse, friend — it can be the stranger you’re sitting next to. I designed this film very specifically to deal with every level of injustice I could find in that community in 1831, especially ones I thought existed right now. We took on racism. Head on. We took on white supremacy and D.W. Griffith, which was a scary thing because he is a filmmaker who everyone hails, at the top. We took on women being marginalized, and violence against women, and systemic oppression, and how you can have good intentions and feel benevolent about people who are being oppressed, but in your passivity, you can be complicit in not speaking or acting in a way that can help them. Those were things when I was writing the film and studying Nat Turner, that I felt were important.”
In one of the more provocative marketing images in recent film memory, Fox Searchlight has leaned heavily on a poster that shows Parker, as Turner, wrapped in a noose fashioned from an American flag.
When that image surfaced in July, Celestin circulated it on Twitter, with his own wish that the Turner rebellion would become a cultural marker in a year that has been roiled by interracial shootings both of and by the police. “We should just put ‘NAT TURNER’ on EVERYTHING for the rest of 2016,” he wrote.