Nate Parker’s slave rebellion epic Birth of a Nation became engulfed in controversy this summer when Variety reported that Parker had been tried (and acquitted) of sexual assault in college. (His Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin was convicted but saw his sentence vacated; their alleged victim later died by suicide.) Parker’s initial attempts to defend himself in the court of public opinion were solipsistic and offensive, though he has since shown more remorse. Now his Birth of a Nation co-star Gabrielle Union has penned a powerful op-ed in the Los Angeles Times eloquently capturing her own ambivalence and pain over the Parker revelations.
Union, whose character in the film is raped, begins by stating that 24 years ago she was “raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store” where she was then working. She then recounts Parker’s alleged misdeeds, reflecting:
Different roads circling one brutal, permeating stain on our society. A stain that is finely etched into my own history. Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence.
Does Union regret helping Parker create Birth of a Nation? It sounds as though she is unsure:
Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.
Union notes that Birth of a Nation presents an opportunity to educate audiences about sexual violence and its aftermath. “I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence,” she writes:
Think of all the victims who, like my character, are silent. The girls sitting in their dorm rooms, scared to speak up. The wife who is abused by her husband. The woman attacked in an alley. The child molested. Countless souls broken from trans-violence attacks. It is for you that I am speaking. This is real. We are real. Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine. And if the stories around this film do not prove and emphasize this, then I don’t know what does.
“It is my hope,” Union concludes, “that we can use this as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation. To reach out to organizations which are working hard to prevent these kinds of crimes. And to support its victims. To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture. And to eventually wipe the stain clean.”
It is far too late to bring justice to Parker’s alleged victim, who died four years ago. And it is now impossible to separate Birth of a Nation, however great it may be, from the controversy that has engulfed it. But Union’s op-ed brings a glimmer of hope that the film can be used to educate, to enlighten, to represent the pain of sexual assault and prevent potential perpetrators from committing these heinous acts. That Union could salvage such an important message from this distressing mess only further proves her immense talent and compassion.