Nate Parker’s controversial past weighs heavy on his reputation.
By Matthew Theis
In the year 2016, director Nate Parker released “Birth of a Nation,” a feature film that was supposed to bring a strong representation for the African American community. The movie was supposed to show the inspirational story of a slave, Nat Turner, who conducted a slave revolt.
Rather than striking a chord with its audience when it was released, it was panned for reasons outside the movie. Information surfaced that in 1999, director Nate Parker raped a college student with his friends. He was acquitted of the charges after a trial, but the victim committed suicide in 2012. Many people boycotted the movie outright because of this case.
Because of this backlash, the film did not do well at the box office.
Down the Nate Parker Rabbit Hole
After a quiet year away from Hollywood, Parker returns with another inspirational movie, this time about a legendary African American police officer, Ralph Waddy. The question that arises is will this film do well for its potentially powerful messages or will Parker’s controversial past continue to haunt him?
According to The Guardian, “Parker had established himself as an actor before directing, co-writing, and starring in the incendiary “The Birth of a Nation,” about the Nat Turner slave rebellion, which was expected to become a cinematic cause célèbre and major awards contender after winning the grand jury prize at the Sundance film festival in 2016.”
Rather than focusing on the upcoming movie though, audiences were more interested in a rape scandal involving Parker back in 1999. According to a report from Canoe, “Parker was acquitted of rape charges from his college days back in 2001, but news of the scandal, and the accuser’s suicide in 2012, resurfaced as he promoted the critically acclaimed ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ sinking the movie’s chances of striking gold during the 2016/2017 awards season.”
The issue ran deeper though, as it was revealed that, “The woman also claimed that she was repeatedly harassed after filing charges, and sued Penn State for failing to protect her. The case was settled for $17,500. Mr. Parker was acquitted of the charges, but Mr. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, though that verdict was later overturned.”
Parker was not pleased with the outcome of his movie or with his past catching up with him. In an interview with Deadline, Parker stated, “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope. … 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.”
Many people were not pleased with Parker’s words. According to a report from The New York Times, “There were calls to boycott the film, and in Los Angeles a smattering of posters for “The Birth of a Nation,” depicting Mr. Parker as the rebellion leader Nat Turner, were altered to read “Rapist?” by a street artist. Meanwhile, prominent figures like Spike Lee who had championed the film went silent, speaking volumes.”
The once potential icon for African American directors became a negative image because of his past. One critic of Parker’s, Maiysha Kai, wrote to The Root in an open letter, “After the fact, according to reporting by Deadline, you told her: “I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean? … I really felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.” Kai went on in her letter to display further criticisms towards Parker’s attitude and handling of the situation. Trying to understand where Parker was coming from she stated,
“…This wasn’t the ongoing pathology of a serial predator; this was a single incident, nearly two decades ago, for which you’d been exonerated. Was it fair to still hold you accountable?..Indeed, what can you possibly say or do? It’s perfectly understandable that you don’t want your current success to be eclipsed by something that happened 17 years ago. But here’s the thing: Your actions 17 years ago appear to have eclipsed a woman’s life. Court documents allege that you and your co-defendant—’The Birth of a Nation’ co-writer Jean Celestin—harassed your accuser following her police report, which could only have added insult to alleged injury.”
Kai finishes her thoughts with, “Nate, we need heroes. We don’t need them to be flawless, but we do need them to be accountable. Perhaps it’s not too late for you to be one.” But is it fair for Parker’s past to continue to haunt his entire career? Parker’s costar on “The Birth of a Nation” seems to think his friend was judged unfairly. According to Canoe, “Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ co-star Armie Hammer criticized the way his friend had been ostracized by Hollywood for something he had been cleared of by law years ago, while ‘Manchester By The Sea’ star Casey Affleck still won an Oscar last year, despite facing more recent allegations of sexual misconduct.” It was unveiled that the resurfacing of the rape case was done by another producer.
In a report from Newsroom, Hammer states,
“There was another person in the industry, who had a competing film for the Academy Awards, who decided to release all of the phone records and information….I’ve been told who did it—by several people…Nate had the stuff in his past, which is heinous and tough to get beyond…But that was when he was 18, and now he’s in directors jail. At the same time, the guy who went and won an Academy Award has three cases of sexual assault against him.”
Film director, Spike Lee agreed with Hammer’s statement and followed it up with his own comments. In a report from Indiewire, Lee stated,
“I know who it is. I’m not going to say who it is. But they do that type of stuff. [‘The Birth of a Nation’] was a film that they knew was a lock, so they had to come up with some dirt to knock it out. And they were very successful. It was a dirty, low-down shame. A dope-fiend double-cross. It’s still a great film, too. I’ll go on record and say that’s a great film, and I said it the first time I saw it at Sundance.”
With the details of the leaked documents against Parker, the question remains if Parker deserves to be haunted by a past resurfaced by a rival producer.
While his upcoming film could potentially hit strides with critics, Parker’s controversial reputation seems to be cemented. Reports on the upcoming movie from Canoe, Indiewire, Deadline, and The Guardian mentioned the rape scandal, with Canoe and The Guardian including “rape controversy” in their headline.
Whatever the stance one takes on Parker, this news from 2016 will likely continue to follow him throughout his career.