The Birth of a Nation was supposed to solve Hollywood's big problem with failing to honor films of diversity. Instead, the antebellum era slave revolt epic has created its own dilemma, asking us to heap praise on its creator while he clumsily deflects attention from his troubled past.
The film packs a wallop. Two separate screenings of Birth of a Nation at the recent Toronto International Film Festival featured audiences that alternated between sobbing and thunderous applause. Despite its gravitas, the film contains many historical inaccuracies—something actor/writer/director Nate Parker fessed up to in Toronto.
"That's why the film says it 'based on a true story,'" he said. "No film is 100 percent accurate."
While Parker has that artistic license, he doesn't have the ability—or even the right—to leave out key aspects of his own history, which includes a rape charge when he was a student at Pennsylvania State University.
"I was falsely accused," Parker told a television audience of more than 14 million people during an Oct. 2 appearance on 60 Minutes. Parker was anxious to tamp down the 1999 rape charge and gin up interest in the Oct. 7 opening of his film.
"An apology? No," he added.
Police in State College, Penn., were convinced it wasn't just "casual sex" that Parker insisted he and his best friend were having with a fellow student in August 1999. That's why Parker and Jean Celestin—who is credited as co-writer of Birth of a Nation—were both accused of rape and sexual assault. Neither defendant testified when their trial convened in October 2001, but State College Police Detective Chris Weaver did take the stand, telling the judge that Parker said in an interview, "She's not the kind of girl that I would date."
The identity of the victim was initially confidential, but a separate federal civil suit launched by the Women's Law Project alleged Parker and Celestin hired a private detective to place enlarged photographs of the woman across the Penn State campus. The university settled that suit for $17,500 and would not comment further.
Parker was acquitted of the rape charge but Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault and sent to prison. Four years later, Celestin's conviction was overturned when a superior court judge ruled his trial attorney provided an ineffective defense. The victim said she was anxious to testify at Celestin's second trial in 2004 but prosecutors said tracking down witnesses would be impossible and dropped the case.
The alleged attack had already done irreparable harm to the woman. Court records indicated she fell into severe depression and anxiety and tried to commit suicide in November 1999—the first of many instances of self-harm. She dropped out of college, tried unsuccessfully to hold a number of jobs and was placed in a Pennsylvania halfway house by the Women's Law Project. On April 15, 2012, she swallowed 199 sleeping pills and died a short time later. She left no note.
Parker, meanwhile, embarked on a career that today sees him as an odds-on favorite for Academy Award nominations for Birth of a Nation. He insisted he didn't know about the woman's death until two months ago when, on Aug. 16, he wrote on his Facebook page, "I am filled with profound sorrow. I can't tell you how hard it is to hear this news." The American Film Institute soon thereafter canceled a high-profile screening of Parker's film and several op-eds targeting the filmmaker have since appeared in Hollywood trade publications—the most damning coming from the sister of the woman Parker was accused of raping.
"As her sister, the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner's wife is used as a reason to justify Turner's rebellion," Sharon Loeffler wrote Sept. 29 in Variety. "I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape."
History reveals Nat Turner never acknowledged having a wife and his bloody rebellion was, according to his own writings published in 1831's "The Confessions of Nat Turner," based on spiritual visions.
Parker is a fine filmmaker, perhaps one of Hollywood's best. That's a fact. But, contrary to what his film would have us believe, it's not a fact that Nat Turner took up arms against his oppressors in order to avenge a rape. It's also not a fact that most real-life rape victims ever see justice served. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, 344 rapes out of more than 1,000 will be reported to the police, 63 will lead to an arrest, 13 will be referred to a prosecutor, seven will lead to a felony conviction and only six of those perpetrators will serve prison time.