The XX Factor

Nate Parker Supporters Use His Rape Accuser’s Mental Health History to Defend Him

Nate Parker at a Hollywood Foreign Press Association banquet in Beverly Hills, California, on Aug. 4, 2016.

Jean Baptiste Lacroix/AFP/Getty Images

Four people who knew Nate Parker in college have released a lengthy statement in support of the director, who’s come under fire in recent weeks for rape charges levied against him 17 years ago. A jury acquitted Parker, then a Penn State student, of all charges, but his accuser maintained that she was drunk and drifting in and out of consciousness while Parker and his friend (and co-writer of Parker’s much-anticipated film Birth of a Nation) Jean Celestin had sex with her. (Celestin and Parker both say the sex was consensual; Matthew Dessem has a detailed account of her accusations and testimony here.) In a statement to the Root, four Penn State alumni who witnessed the 2001 trial say the media has “cherry-picked the most salacious elements” of Parker’s case to convict him in the court of public opinion.

“We are both dismayed and disappointed at the gross and blatant misinformation campaign regarding the events that took place during that time period,” the statement reads. “We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now. This belief was supported by the evidence that eventually fully cleared both Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker. Evidence that many media outlets have chosen to ignore, overlook or mischaracterize today.”

In a 10-point list, the statement denies that Parker stalked and harassed the alleged victim between his arrest and trial, as she said he did. It also claims the police threatened and coerced testimony from an eyewitness for the prosecution; denies that the jury’s acquittal had anything to do with testimony that Parker and the alleged victim had had prior consensual sex; and accuses the media of focusing on one recorded phone call when, in fact, there were several.

The statement’s authors—LaKeisha Wolf, Assata Richards, Lurie Daniel Favors, and Brian Favors—say Parker and Celestin’s trial was “another example of the blatant racism and violent hostility faced by black students on Penn State’s campus” at the time. They connect the rape allegations against Parker to a long history of white people demonizing black men as sexual predators and imprisoning them for made-up sexual offenses.

That’s one of the most troubling parts of Parker’s case: We know that black men are disproportionately arrested, convicted, and incarcerated, often on trumped-up charges or because of racist policing practices. We also know that rapists have gotten away with their crimes for centuries, while survivors of sexual assault are mistrusted, blamed, and personally vilified when they speak out about violence done to them.

But it’s hard to empathize with Parker when he’s hardly afforded his accuser the same consideration. In multiple interviews, the director has framed his trial as a “very painful moment” in his life, a personal setback that he overcame to learn valuable lessons that led him to his current success. He’s compared internet furor over the rape allegations to other “obstacles” in his life, like his father’s death and growing up in poverty. He made the bizarre decision to bring his 6-year-old daughter to an interview with Variety about the case, an alarmingly cynical move meant to make him a more sympathetic figure, no doubt. His recent Facebook statement on the resurfaced allegations suggests that while “the encounter was unambiguously consensual,” it was wrong because it was somehow immoral and unbecoming of “a man of faith.”

Whatever positive effect the statement in the Root might have on Parker’s reputation, it is outshone by one glaring affront: the authors’ employment of the alleged victim’s mental health history in Parker’s defense. His accuser killed herself in 2012 after attempting suicide multiple times in the months after her 1999 police report. “Misinformation suggests that a spiral into depression was triggered by the alleged incident in 1999,” Parker’s four friends write. “However, court records and testimony by medical professionals revealed a history of chronic depression that dated back to childhood and the use of antidepressant medication that preceded this event.”

No one can know what compels a person to suicide. There is no one final truth that court documents, medical history, or health records could reveal. In their efforts to clear Parker’s name, the people who wrote this statement have taken a deceased woman’s personal story and twisted it for his benefit. Using an accuser’s mental health records to boost the reputation of the man she called her rapist is a callous move that aligns with generations of strategic victim-blaming. If Parker deserves fair treatment and the benefit of the doubt, his accuser, who’s no longer here to defend herself or clarify the record, deserves as least that much.