The XX Factor

The Troubling Contradiction at the Heart of the Nate Parker Controversy

Nate Parker accepts the Breakthrough Director of the Year Award during the CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards on April 14, 2016 in Las Vegas.

Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for CinemaCon

Two weeks ago, Variety published a story re-surfacing rape allegations made against the actor, writer, and director Nate Parker, whose much-anticipated The Birth of a Nation, about Nat Turner and the slave revolt he led, is being released on October 7th. Seventeen years ago, when Parker was a student wrestler at Penn State, he and his teammate Jean Celestin, who has a story credit on Birth of a Nation, stood trial for allegedly raping a woman in Parker’s dorm room. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but the verdict was overturned on appeal. The victim killed herself in 2012.

When Parker was first asked about the rape— during an interview to which he brought his six-year-old daughter—he did not mention the victim, but said, “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.”

The details of the story are sordid and disturbing. According to an eyewitness, Tamerlane Kangas, Parker invited him and Celestin to join him in his dorm room where he was having sex with the victim, who had been drinking heavily and later had little memory of the incident. After bringing charges against the men, the victim says she was harassed and followed by Parker and Celestin; she dropped out of school by the end of the semester. The Women’s Law Project suit later accused Penn State of Title IX violations and “deliberate indifference to known, severe, and pervasive sexual harassment” of the alleged victim on campus after she reported the alleged assault—a depressingly common outcome when college athletes are accused of sexual misconduct. The victim later received a $17,500 settlement from Penn State.

That Parker was acquitted and Celestin convicted seems to have boiled down to the fact that Parker and the woman had engaged in consensual oral sex the day before the incident—which sounds like the oldest smear in the ignore-a-rape-victim’s-testimony handbook. Celestin received letters of support from university administrators. The victim’s sister believes Parker and Celestin “sucked the soul and life out of her.” Parker was found not guilty, but in reading the trial transcripts today, it’s easy to imagine that the outcome might have been different if the trial were to have taken place in 2016.

The case was never a secret. It has always been on Parker’s Wikipedia page and he seems to have made no attempts to have it deleted. But it was ignored as The Birth of Nation became a sensation at Sundance, heralded as an ambitious, necessary, and timely film. Fox Searchlight and Parker attempted to control the story by granting initial interviews to industry-friendly publications Deadline and Variety, but they failed. Complex published a piece with the title “There’s no good reason to support Nate Parker.” The Root wrote him an open letter. The Washington Post published a piece asking if the rape case should “make you rethink seeing The Birth of a Nation.” The Huffington Post ran a piece called “We need to talk about Nate Parker.” The novelist and critic Roxane Gay wrote a powerful op-ed in the New York Times this weekend about why she will be skipping the film. The culture website Black Nerd Problems said they will not be reviewing the film, part of a larger debate about whether to boycott the film or not. Doctored posters for The Birth of a Nation appeared around Los Angeles, showing Parker’s face over the text “Rapist?” Parker, who has not been accused of assault since the trial, has been compared to R. Kelly, Roman Polanski, Woody Allen, and Bill Cosby. Fox Searchlight, the company releasing the movie, has reportedly considered delaying the film and cutting a historically inaccurate rape scene from the movie.* And that is just a small sampling of the conversation about Parker.

I am going to try to do something that feels scary now: I am going to try to explore an aspect of the reaction to the Nate Parker case that makes me feel uneasy, but without wanting in any way to minimize the accusations against him or proscribe how people should react to or feel about them.

The criminal justice system is in crisis. The reaction to the Parker case is one manifestation of that crisis. The criminal justice system is so broken that, with regard to sexual assault cases, we have no faith in its ability to deliver a verdict of guilt and no confidence in a verdict of not guilty. The system is seen to be so skewed towards the aggressor in sexual assault cases that it cannot render a fair and just ruling. In the absence of such a definitive decision, accusations become the lifetime verdict. Nate Parker was acquitted of rape charges 17 years ago. These facts have permitted him to become a successful actor and director with a much-anticipated film shortly to arrive in theaters, but they will never free him from the suspicion that he is an unpunished rapist, despite being designed to do exactly that.

In criminal cases that are not about sexual assault, we are also skeptical of the criminal justice system’s rulings. Except in those instances, it is the verdict of guilt about which we have doubts. How could we not? Nearly every day, there are reports of police officers using excessive force and military grade weapons on the civilian population they are meant to protect, harassing and locking up black people as a matter of course, when not murdering them. The courts are overcrowded and backlogged, just like prisons, where corrupt and inhumane practices chew up low-level offenders, disproportionally black, and turn them into lifetime recidivists. The for-profit prison-industrial complex grows, making prisoners a lucrative industry and contributing to America having more prisoners than any country in the world.

With regard to any crime except sexual assault or terrorism, we have hardly ever been more sympathetic to the accused or the incarcerated. True crime documentaries like Serial and Making a Murderer, to say nothing of the Innocence Project, have taken seemingly open-and-shut cases and revealed them to be anything but. We know a young man can spend years in Rikers without ever being convicted of a crime; that guards are abusive and unaccountable; innocent people spend years in jail because of corrupt cops or faulty eye-witness testimony or a lack of DNA evidence; juveniles are abused; solitary is torture; the death penalty has likely been used to execute the innocent.

There are very good reasons why public sentiment about rape verdicts and alleged rapists is so different than sentiment about other sorts of criminals. There is a long, horrifying history of sexual assault being more or less legal, of victim’s stories being ignored, contradicted, shuffled aside. Marital rape, forcible sex with women who didn’t “fight back,” sex with unconscious victims—none of these were considered serious crimes by many men, colleges, or courts until recently. In some parts of America, they still aren’t. Just this past April, an Oklahoma court ruled that forcing an unconscious victim to perform oral sex is not sexual assault. In Roxane Gay’s essay on Parker for the Times, she cites statistics from the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network that “out of every 1,000 rapes, 344 will be reported to the police, 63 of those reports will lead to an arrest, 13 cases will be referred to a prosecutor, seven of those cases will lead to a felony conviction and six of those perpetrators will serve prison time.”

Those of us who are greatly concerned with the injustices of the prison system and those of us who are greatly concerned with the injustices of sexual assault trials are often one and the same. These concerns are in sync. They are both about securing justice for the powerless. The progressive public-at-large has never been more sympathetic to a young black man at the mercy of the criminal justice system. It has also never been less sympathetic to any man accused of sexual assault. Part of what is so thorny about the Nate Parker case is that both of these men are Nate Parker.

Correction, Aug. 29, 2016: This post originally stated that Fox Searchlight was considering cutting a historically accurate rape scene from The Birth of a Nation. The scene in question is historically inaccurate. (Return.)