As Nate Parker’s Nat Turner film The Birth of a Nation nears its Oct. 7 release date, rape allegations made against Parker and writer Jean Celestin 17 years ago have resurfaced in the press. Celestin shares story credit on The Birth of a Nation; the screenplay was written by Parker, who directed the film and stars as Nat Turner. Criminal charges were brought against both Parker and Celestin in 1999 when they were college students at Penn State. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found not guilty of rape but guilty of sexual assault. Celestin’s conviction was later overturned. Their accuser, whose name Slate is not publishing, was 18 at the time of the incident and killed herself after several attempts in 2012.
The alleged rape occurred on the night of Aug. 21, 1999, when Nate Parker, Jean Celestin, Tamerlane Kangas and the woman who accused them returned to Parker and Celestine’s apartment after a night out. Parker and Celestin were close friends and teammates on Penn State’s wrestling team since being roommates their freshman year. What happened next is disputed. Their accuser testified that she was drunk, passed out in Parker’s bed, and awoke to find Parker having sex with her, later waking again to find Celestin’s penis in her mouth. According to Kangas’ testimony in the trial transcripts published by Deadline, he and Celestin witnessed Parker having sex with the woman, and Parker invited both men to join him. Kangas testified that he advised Celestin not to go into Parker’s room and did not enter himself but watched Parker and Celestin have sex with her for a short time before leaving. Parker and Celestin both maintained that their accuser was conscious and the encounter was consensual. The victim reported the incident to Penn State in September, and to the police on Oct. 13. After a police investigation, Parker and Celestin were both charged with rape, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse, sexual assault, and indecent assault on Oct. 21, 1999.
A lawsuit filed on the victim’s behalf in March of 2002 alleges that Penn State did little or nothing to discipline Parker or Celestin after the criminal charges, besides suspending them from the wrestling team. (Some context about the culture surrounding athletics at Penn State at the time: Serial child molester Jerry Sandusky was allowed to retire in 1999; in 2001, university officials concealed evidence of further incidents of Sandusky’s abuse. When football coach Joe Paterno was fired in 2011 for the cover-up, students rioted.) Things got worse for the victim as the accused men prepared their defense. A private investigator they hired questioned students about her, using a photograph to identify her. Because of this investigation, she later alleged, her name became known to the student body, and she was subject to harassment that made it impossible for her to appear in public. Furthermore, she reported that Parker himself visited her dorm’s common room the night he was bound over for trial and on another occasion waited outside her dorm so that she was unable to leave and that Parker, Celestin, and their friends followed her around campus yelling sexual epithets at her. She reported the harassment to Penn State, but, the lawsuit alleged, they took no action to protect her. On Nov. 17, she attempted suicide; on Nov. 23, she attempted suicide again. In January of 2000, she withdrew from Penn State. Parker transferred to the University of Oklahoma, but Celestin remained, serving as chair of an event called Ebony and Ivory Week 2001, which, he told the Daily Collegian, addressed harassment issues like death threats and hate mail.
At Parker and Celestin’s 2001 trial, defense attorney Joseph Devecka gave a closing statement that repeatedly referred to the woman’s partial memories of the evening as “convenient,” and painted her behavior after the incident as inconsistent with her accusations—going to work the next morning and, worse still, drinking the next night. (“What she claims got her in trouble the night before,” in Devecka’s words.) He also drew the jury’s attention to a consensual sexual encounter between Parker and the woman two days before the incident. (Celestin’s lawyer, who would later be found by a higher court to have provided inadequate counsel, focused on raising doubt about how much the accuser had had to drink and the district attorney’s decision not to prosecute the accuser for illegally taping a telephone conversation while gathering evidence.)
On Oct. 5, 2001, Parker was found not guilty of all charges, while Celestin was found guilty only of sexual assault and not guilty of the other three charges. During the trial, the university had postponed disciplinary proceedings against Celestin at the victim’s request; rather than begin these once he was convicted, they waited until he was sentenced. In the intervening month, several university officials wrote letters to Judge Thomas Kistler attesting to Celestin’s character. In November, Celestin was sentenced to six to 12 months, much less than the three-to-six-year sentence sentencing guidelines called for. In addition, Judge Kistler allowed him to remain free until five days after his December graduation. Penn State told the press that they weren’t sure his disciplinary proceedings would be finished in time to prevent him from participating in graduation but that his diploma could be revoked later if necessary.
In the campuswide outcry that followed, black student leaders argued that Celestin should be allowed to graduate and pointed to the racial makeup of the jury that convicted him. The victim asked that he be expelled, writing, “I only see it as being some small consolation to my loss that he does not receive that diploma.” Victims’ rights group Security on Campus got involved, and on Dec. 7, Celestin was expelled for two years and barred from attending graduation. “I have a right to my education,” Celestin said in a statement at the time, calling the trial “a two-and-a-half year nightmare.”
The next spring, the Women’s Law Project filed suit against Penn State on the victim’s behalf. The case was settled out of court in Dec. 2002 for $17,500 and an agreement to have the university’s sexual harassment procedures reviewed by an independent panel. In 2003, the Pennsylvania Superior Court found that Judge Kistler had been improperly lenient in Celestin’s sentencing; he was resentenced to two to four years. In April of 2004, the report on Penn State’s sexual assault and harassment policies was sent to the university, including detailed recommendations on ways to improve their process. It’s unclear whether any of the recommendations were adopted, but when the report was released to the public that fall, a university spokesperson called it “shoddy” and “one of the poorest kinds of reports I’ve seen from my years working at Penn State,” while urging students to ignore “silly press releases.”
A year later, in November 2005, Celestin had his guilty verdict overturned entirely in favor of a new trial. His retrial made it through jury selection before prosecutors decided not to retry the case. Variety reports that the victim decided not to testify again, but contemporaneous reporting implies she was still involved and mentions other key witnesses who could not be found. Tamerlane Kangas was stationed in Japan with the Air Force, and “another witness, who lives in California, was mailed a subpoena that was not returned.” Parker, an All-American wrestler at the University of Oklahoma, graduated in 2003 and moved to California shortly afterward.
In the years that followed, the victim “moved around frequently and tried to hold a job,” her brother told Variety. “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to the one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point.” In 2012, she took her own life by overdosing on over-the-counter sleeping pills at a drug rehabilitation facility. She was 30. Although there was no direct link to the trial, her death certificate said she suffered from “PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.” That year, Parker was named one of Variety’s 10 Actors to Watch in 2012 and appeared in Red Tails, Arbitrage, and Red Hook Summer.
This isn’t the first time Parker has addressed his past. In a 2007 profile for hometown paper the Virginian-Pilot on the occasion of his casting in The Great Debaters, Parker spoke of the accusations and his trial as a learning experience that helped spur him to success:
Something like that turns you into a man real fast. It teaches you the world doesn’t owe you anything. … If I had my way, it would never be brought up again. It’s taken six years of my life to get past it. … I’ve had some tough times in my life, but they were just stress points. They were stops in the road that put a mirror in front of my face and said, “Who are you and where do you want to go?” My life now is all about the answers to those questions.
When the accusations against Parker and Celestin arose again last week, both men—not yet aware of the victim’s suicide—looked toward the future. Parker talked around her when he spoke to Variety:
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 I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.
Here’s how Jean Celestin described it in an email to Deadline:
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.
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.
When news of the victim’s suicide broke on Tuesday, Parker posted a lengthy statement on his Facebook page addressing her death directly:
I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow. … While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. … I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. … I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will.
In an interview in July about The Birth of a Nation, Parker talked about systemic racism. “We treat everything like an isolated event. We villainize the victim instantly. But what people don’t understand is that anger goes somewhere. It doesn’t just disappear.” Last week, he had this to say about his film, which features a scene in which Nat Turner’s wife is raped: “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing.”