There's No Good Reason to Support Nate Parker

'The Birth of a Nation' director shouldn't be supported just because he's telling an important historical tale. His history matters too.

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Complex Original

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If you were Nate Parker's publicist, how drunk would you be right now? 

Then again, after reading Parker’s remarks to Variety and Deadline about past accusations of rape, one wonders if he even has one—an effective one anyway. “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker explained to Variety. “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.”

Parker essentially repeats his seemingly prepared statements in his separate interview with Deadline. That interview, though, is far more overt in its attempts to assist Parker in squashing controversy before the release of his directorial debut, Birth of a Nation. Its co-authors include rather dubious lines like “Why would an incident that ended in Parker’s acquittal nearly two decades ago be at all relevant in a movie that took place in Antebellum Virginia?”

This is the traditional Hollywood machine at work. For so long, it has been able to masterly diffuse any potential backlash towards creatives whose private acts threaten their professional work and movie studios’ bottomlines. However, it is a new day; one in which social media has amplified the voices of those traditionally drowned out. After both interviews ran, subsequent reports claimed executives of Fox Searchlight, which is distributing Parker’s film, are “scrambling” to deal with the aftermath, reportedly taking “a wait and see approach to a proposed ambitious release plan that had called for extensive outreach to church groups, college campuses and prominent Hollywood figures.”

They can wait and see all they’d like, but the damage is done. Parker may have decided to address an issue he admittedly knew was heading his way, but he did so in cavalier fashion to his own detriment. The same goes for Parker’s former college roommate and co-writer of The Birth of a Nation,  Jean Celestin, who told 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.”

Both Parker and Celestin are noticeably careful with their phrasing. To be found not guilty and exonerated of charges does not necessarily amount to innocence. Of all those who have already taken to Parker’s defense, I find it equal parts amusing and alarming that Black men have been so quick to suddenly cite the court system. This is the same court system that told us Trayvon Martin’s killer was not guilty; that Tamir Rice’s killer was not deserving of an indictment; that no one should face any consequences for the death of Freddie Gray. 

We know the justice system will fail Black and Brown people when they fall victim to agents of the state, or in George Zimmerman’s case, a coward wearing the drag of law enforcement, but the justice systemfailsthevictims of sexual assault just as routinely. 

In the case of the 18-year-old woman who accused Parker and Celestin of raping her in their apartment after a night of drinking, details from the case do suggest she was failed. Parker was ultimately acquitted of the charges in 2001, but much of that had to do with the accuser admitting that the two had consensual sex previously—which says a lot more about a failure to recognize consent is on a case by case basis more than anything. As for Celestin, he was convicted only to have that conviction overturned with no retrial due to the accuser not wanting to testify again. However, she sued the university and was awarded a $17,500 settlement out of court. 

For those who mercilessly brush these allegations aside, I invite you to read the testimonies of eyewitnesses during the trial. Then read the transcript of a phone conversation Parker had with the alleged victim. Parker talks about some traumatizing moment of his life, but read the trauma in those documents and who is responsible. Then remember Parker’s alive while his accuser committed suicide in 2012. Her death certificate states that she suffered “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse.” 

Her brother told Variety, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point.”

Those asking why Parker’s rape case wasn’t made a bigger issue in the past, know that it’s not a riddle. With wider attention comes more extensive looks into one’s background—especially if you are the centerpiece of a major film release that plans to launch an expansive Oscar campaign in the months ahead. It works the same with presidential candidates.

Yet, some would argue that Parker is the victim, purportedly because “they don’t want the story of Nat Turner to be released.” Who is they? White folks? The same white folks that gave Nate Parker $17.5 million for The Birth of a Nation? The same ones actively protecting their investment by trotting him to the press in the first place? Oh.

If there’s one thing men of every color can agree on, it is often sadly the disregard of women and autonomy over their bodies.

When defensive Black people bring up race and the notion of sabotage, they’re missing out that many of the people making this a larger issue on social media are black themselves. 

I can attest to this because other people have been bringing up a post I wrote on Nate Parker back in 2014 for months now. The post in question mentioned a since-deleted video interview Parker did with where he said he wouldn’t play a gay character because he wanted to “preserve the Black man.” The inference here is that to be gay is to emasculate the black man, thus, be less than.

I’ve wrestled with wanting to monetarily support Parker’s film on that alone because no story is important enough to compromise my humanity. Now that I’ve learned more about Parker’s past, I can confidently say he won’t get a dime from me. No powerful Black narrative should come at the expense of the violation of a woman’s body. 

Even in his new statement expressing “sorrow” over his accuser’s suicide, it comes on the heels of rising anger aimed squarely at him for those previous remarks. He spoke selflessly before about his pain and his trauma. This somewhat softer language could be genuine or it could be a shift in tone for the sake of self-interests now that he’s grasped how tainted his film campaign has become.

And for those ready to pounce, no, Roman Polanski and Woody Allen haven’t suffered professionally, but I want to be better than those before me, not just as willing to look the other way. I know if Parker used less passive language and conveyed more contrition for his past in his interviews, then maybe I’d be more willing to see the film. But he wasn’t. He was self-centered, smug, and self-righteous. 

I do not worship at the altar of patriarchy. I do not need yet another straight, Black male figure touting the importance of Black imagery and story and pretending those issues alone are enough to overshadow his faults. Nat Turner’s story is important, but Nate Parker’s camera is not the only lens to view him through.

Seventeen years later, Parker says all he can do is be the best man he can be now. Based on how he continues to categorize the past, this man in his present is still lacking. That's not a man I can support. 

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