Nate Parker Brings a Cloud of Controversy to Toronto Film Festival

Nate Parker Press Tour Plows Ahead,
Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

At the Toronto Film Festival this week, all eyes will be on Nate Parker. The actor, writer, director and producer of “The Birth of a Nation” will journey north of the border in hopes of salvaging a press tour that threatened to be derailed by a mounting controversy over his college rape trial.

It’s a high-stakes gamble, one that will find Parker, who was acquitted by a juror of the charges, sitting for television interviews and holding a press conference. Not only will he invariably be grilled on his behavior that night 17 years ago, but every one of his answers will be picked over and analyzed, leaving little room for error.

Parker’s initial handling of the subject in interviews with Variety and Deadline — in which he emphasized his innocence and said he had “moved on” — was widely seen as a disaster. Since then he has changed course, showing remorse for being a “player” in college and attempting to take stock of his own “toxic masculinity.” He has also suggested he may seek to incorporate the lessons he is learning about male privilege into the message of his film, which dramatizes the story of Nat Turner’s slave uprising in 1831.

But it will be a challenge — to say the least — for Parker to find acceptance as a spokesman on the issue of rape culture. Fox Searchlight has indicated that Parker will take the film to campus screenings, but he may find hostile audiences if he follows through with the plan. Activists say Parker’s recent comments to Ebony Magazine, in which he said he was confronting his own privilege, show he still has much to learn.


Nate Parker Rape Case Interview Variety

The Nate Parker Interview: What’s Next for ‘The Birth of a Nation’

“I think it’s a terrible idea for him to go on campus educating about rape and rape culture,” said Kamilah Willingham, an activist who appeared in “The Hunting Ground,” the campus rape documentary. “He still doesn’t get it. He’s trying to have it both ways.”

Fox Searchlight declined to comment and a spokesman for Parker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.

While he has expressed some general regrets, Parker has avoided speaking about the details of the alleged rape, which occurred in 1999 when he was a student at Penn State. Parker and his roommate, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping an 18-year-old student while she was drunk and unconscious. They were also accused of harassing her afterwards when she took the matter to police. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

In the Ebony interview, and in a talk at the Merge Conference, Parker acknowledged “discarding” women and mistreating them emotionally. But his critics see a world of difference between caddish behavior and rape. They are looking for him to move beyond buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” to a more direct acknowledgement of the pain he caused the victim.

“It felt very superficial. I haven’t read anywhere where he respects or honors his victim at all,” said Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson, who wrote a piece critical of Parker at The Establishment. In the absence of such an acknowledgement, Johnson said she would prefer he remain silent on the subject.

“Saying nothing is better than saying things that continue to be harmful,” she said.

The subject poses a dilemma for Fox Searchlight, which purchased “The Birth of a Nation” at the Sundance Film Festival for a record $17.5 million. In its initial statement, the studio echoed Parker’s insistence on his own innocence, stressing in a statement that Parker had been “cleared of all charges.” The statement seemed intended to put the matter firmly in the past — “17 years ago,” as Parker often stressed — and to avoid distracting from the film’s timely theme of confronting racism and bigotry.

But in the wake of the uproar, Parker said he was using the criticism to begin a journey of self-improvement, which he said would make him a better leader on issues of injustice. He said he was taking the first of “many, many, many, many steps,” one of which seemed to be addressing male privilege as part of the “curriculum” of the film.

“Male privilege in a way is like white supremacy,” he said at the Merge Conference. “If racism ended tomorrow but violence against women didn’t change, we’d be in a spot still. So I’m really just trying to wrap my head around how I can be a part — how that can be part of this curriculum of this film. How we can use this platform not just for one sliver of justice, but to deal with all injustice…”

Johnson suggested that one strategy would be for Parker to relinquish the stage to survivors of sexual abuse.

“I don’t want to hear you go speak about male privilege and toxic masculinity,” she said. “That says more about ego and wanting to prove to people you’ve been redeemed… If you’re actually trying to be like, ‘Let’s educate people,’ then you take the people most affected and give them your platform.”

Instead of presenting a unified front, the cast of “The Birth of a Nation” has been grappling with the fallout from the revelations in a very public manner? and in real time. Co-star Gabrielle Union, who is a rape survivor, wrote an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times last week in which she discussed her own experience and criticized Parker’s interpretation of consent as a college student. To construe the absence of a “no” as a “yes,” she wrote, is “problematic at least, criminal at worst.” At the same time, she defended the film, calling it “ground-breaking” and said she hoped the controversy could become an opportunity for progress.

But some activists are troubled by the film as well. The film portrays a rape — an invention not found in the historical record — as a cause for the uprising.

“That’s really yucky to anyone who’s aware of Nate Parker’s past,” Johnson said. “He didn’t need to put that in the story and chose to. I think that’s going to be a big thing for people to get over.”

Willingham said she was concerned that the rape is seen through the lens of the male characters.

“That is such an old and played-out narrative,” she said. “I think black women are getting tired of slave narratives that are centered on men’s experiences.”

It’s unclear how the controversy will affect Parker’s plans to take the film to college campuses. The American Film Institute canceled a screening two weeks ago, which would have been mandatory for all students. Instead, the institute hosted a private conversation for students with critic Elvis Mitchell last week, and will reschedule an optional screening for sometime later in the fall.

Fox Searchlight is moving ahead with preview screenings at a number of other college campuses, including Yale University and the University of Miami. A spokesman for the Wexner Center for the Arts, which had been planning to screen the film at Ohio State University, said it had decided to move forward with its showing. The Wexner Center will host a panel discussion with faculty from across campus that will address the issues surrounding the film, and following the screening it will have a Q&A moderated by a faculty person who can address the historical content of the film.

Alex Ago, director of programming at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said that a producer of the film, Jason Berman, will screen it for Leonard Maltin’s seminar class and do a Q&A .

“We think it’s a very powerful movie,” Ago said, noting that Berman would not shy away from the controversy. “An academic forum is exactly the right place to be having these conversations amongst our students.”

USC students will also be invited to a preview screening on the Fox lot on Sept. 20.

A screening is also set for the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale on Oct. 6, the day before the film is released on 1,500 screens nationwide. Helen Price, co-director of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, said that while the film is “politically important,” the rape case is “particularly disturbing.” She also seemed unmoved by Parker’s Ebony interview.

“I think the interview is more of the same really — the fact that he ‘called up a couple sisters’ and made them explain to him how he messed up is yet another example of how women, particularly women of color, do a huge amount of thankless emotional labor trying to educate the men in their lives about issues such as this,” she wrote.

Parker still has his defenders. Two weeks ago, four Penn State classmates of Parker’s penned an 1,800-word open letter defending Parker and Celestin’s innocence and casting them as victims of “blatant racism.” They also pointed to the victim’s previous history of depression, attempting to deflect the claim that the rape led to the her suicide.

Two of the four authors, Brian and Lurie Favors, have served on the board of the Nate Parker Foundation. A third, Assata Richards, told Variety she wanted to correct what she felt were factual mistakes in the media’s coverage of the case. She said Parker had not asked her to write the letter and that he had no involvement.

“To call Nate Parker and Jean Celestin rapists after they have been through a full judicial process is irresponsible,” she said. ”To put someone through that process and then to say, ‘Oh wait, wait, wait, you’re still guilty’ — that is not fair.”

It’s also unclear whether Parker will be met with protests when he screens the film at Toronto this week.

Sonya Barnett, co-founder of Toronto’s SlutWalk, a group that seeks to end rape culture, said she wasn’t sure how to feel about the film or its maker.

“I could object loudly to the screening, being on the side of assault victims, but as a white woman, I cannot tell people to protest a film on black slavery,” she said. “It’s a messy situation, no matter how you try to spin it.”

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  1. Emmanuel Dark says:

    Wow, I’m just now seeing this one. This is the first hit piece published against Nate Parker from this website that became a trilogy and each hit piece were published within two days of each other. This fake-outrage has nothing to do with allegations of rape dating back almost two decades because Nate Parker was found innocent within a court of law; presided over by a White Judge and 99% White Jury and there’s no way any White person within America will allow any Black man to get away with raping any White woman. This is nothing more than the Hollywood Industry Strikes back…. because how dare a Black man go and make an independent film without permission from Hollywood’s vanguard and he dares to choose a historic subject of a slave rebellion. Enslaved Black people are only supposed to be depicted as suffering noble but helpless victims that can only be saved through graces of a White savior to whitewash i.e. rewrite American history and place false ideology within the public minds that enslaved Blacks became free only through the efforts of good White people. Which is explicitly stated but that’s the psychological subtext of films about American slavery released thus far. Nate Parker’s historic biopic about Nat Turner’s Rebellion is unapologetic and unforgiving about the horrendous conditions of enslaved Black people and their fight to be free as Nat Turner fight was unforgiving of those that imprisoned his people. Understand no amount of hit-pieces from this tabloid nor from other web publications smearing Mr. Parker is going undermine the importance of this film. It will still be a blockbuster and whether it wins Oscars or not this film will eventually be inducted into the National Film Archives being preserved for prosperity or as long as the USA still exists.

    • Emmanuel Dark says:

      I meant…. Which isn’t explicitly stated but that’s the psychological subtext of films about American slavery released thus far.

  2. kern says:

    If a woman feels that a male’s behavior toward her constitutes a rape, then it is a rape, period. Nothing else matters, Until Parker, or any offending males realizes this, he has no place in respectable society.

  3. Alia Jasmin says:

    It’s scary how he still doesn’t get what he did wrong and had to call ‘two sisters’ to explain it to him. He wants us to watch his film about racism and condemn ‘White privilige’ but he freely admits he takes advantage of his ‘male privilege’. It shows he has no real understanding of discrimination or subjugation of human beings and is using the subject of slavery to further his own career. Boycott the movie.

    • Emmanuel Dark says:

      No one other than racists both openly-bigoted and closet-racists are boycotting Nate Parker’s film. They wasn’t going to see it anyway because it stars, written, and directed by a Black-American and that’s simply enough for them to boycott and the fact it’s a dramatization of a historic slave rebellion where White slave owners were killed is even more reason they won’t watch that film so they don’t count. However, the Hollywood industry is largely upset for those same reasons and this media-fueled scandal is nothing more than a character-assassination/smear-campaign against Mr. Parker to try and make the film flop at the box office. I look forward to reading more “White Tears” articles after the film opens to packed movie theaters and it becomes a box office success despite the relentless smear campaign against Mr. Parker.

  4. Natalie says:

    Only one juror acquitted him? How did the other jurors vote?

    Gosh, Variety, get a high school student as a proofreader.

  5. NHK says:

    “It felt very superficial. I haven’t read anywhere where he respects or honors his victim at all,” said Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson, who wrote a piece critical of Parker at The Establishment.


    Respects or honors his victim? Well, Ms. Johnson, if he is telling the truth (or is at least convinced of his innocence), if he feels that he went through the legal process and was acquitted by the law, then why would he see that co-ed as “his victim” and why in the hell would he try to honor her?

    It seems like a whole lot of people want to rewrite history as if Nate Parker was actually found guilty. Therefore he must move aside and allow victims of sexual abuse and rape take center stage in discussions of his films about slavery. WTF? This is nonsense. Look the man has been cleared by the law. So all his new collection of haters can do is charge him in the court of public opinion. They have that right. But Parker has the right to maintain his innocence. He is either some deceitful sociopath who knows he is lying or deludes himself enough to believe he is being railroaded or he is actually innocent of all charges (including the harassment charge that others on his side have disputed) and is indeed being victimized nearly two decades later by opinionated people typing away on keyboards who were not in that room that night, were not on the Penn State campus went the whole proceedings occurred and had no idea what Parker, Celestin or this co-ed went through. Either way he would be a fool to come out and say he is wrong because that would mean acknowledging that he raped a woman. And if he had done that now or weeks ago when the controversy first arose, then he would be in far hotter water than he is at this moment. The people in this piece claiming it would be better for him to admit to his so-called mistakes are nothing but a bunch of disingenuous loudmouths who have already convicted him of all crimes in their minds.

    From what I know of this whole case it is apparently clear each time I read quotes from those who are angry with Parker and from those who write comments in feedback portions of online articles that people are cherry picking only information or statements that coincide with their formed opinions. They give credence only to viewpoint of events that feed their anger and their outrage. They ignore that prosecutors in lily white communities typically don’t drop the idea to prosecute young black males, especially if such an individual is accused of harming a white female. For them not to pursue Parker in court suggests how incredibly shaky they thought the case they had on him (and no it cannot be completely explained away by his having intercourse with the co-ed previously). They ignore the accusations of a hostile racial climate by black students at the time when law enforcement was trying to make its case. They ignore the fact that the co-ed herself called Parker on a few occasions over the phone to talk with him before ever pressing charges and ignore accusations that her story and the story of one key person in her corner changed a couple of times. They ignore that Parker and Celestin weren’t some rich athletes like OJ who could afford the best lawyers to defend them nor were they some glamorous athletes on the school’s cherished football team (the guys who typically would get a pass from the white community of Penn State); they were guys from middle-class families (at best) who weren’t able to pay for the best defense. They ignore claims that the police were trying to coerce people into giving false information about Parker and Celestin. They ignore that it was determined that the defense for Celestin was so awful he was actually allowed a retrial after his conviction. Granted he won the retrial because the co-ed would not testify again, but as cold as this may sound the blame for that falls at the co-ed’s feet. If Celestin was this creep who raped you and there’s a chance that he could go free then it was up to her to testify again despite how painful reliving those memories could have been. By not testifying again a person could make the argument that that was her way of admitting her claims against him were not true. Of course I can’t be certain of that, I ca only speculate. But then again that type of speculation has been directed at Parker and Celestin for weeks now despite the same lack of firsthand knowledge of what whet down and what these individuals were really thinking.

    My biggest gripe against Parker, other than being stupid to want to invite other men to have group sex with one woman in the first place, is his agonizingly bad apologetic tour. All these talking points about toxic masculinity, male privilege, not caring about the emotions of women back in the day, being a loving father now blah, blah, blah seems either clumsy or too coerced. But I also know if he had said nothing, as one person suggested in this article, he would be at least just as vilified. It’s a damned if you do, damned if you don’t scenario. He should limit any further speeches or interviews about the issue, only address it in press conferences when the questions come up. That being said whenever I hear about someone throwing around the term rape culture and how that comes into play regarding Parker’s situation, I want to toss back at them the notion of the long practiced exercise of racial bias. Because in this country the history of black males being charged, accused and trialed both in court and public opinion for crimes they are not guilty of is just as odious as sexual crimes against women. And the failure for Parker’s detractors to at least acknowledge that is telling.

  6. Rex says:

    Somehow I just don’t see the public screenings of this film — should Parker choose to attend them — producing any kind of protest. It’s all TIFF audiences can do to come up with Q&A questions more challenging than “when will this be on home video?” or “how many days did it take to shoot?” You know, real pertinent stuff. Hopefully the press gives him more of a gauntlet to run than the stargazers up here.

  7. millerfilm says:

    Parker is now an integral part of rape culture. Whether you see him as having raped that woman, or are honest about it and at least admit that he took advantage of a woman unable to give consent, he is part of this now. Of course, now that he has daughters, he’s very protective of them. But, back then, he was willing to use them as he wished. Interesting how times change, huh, player?

    • Emmanuel Dark says:

      millerfilm, if “rape-culture” exists it’s to protect White-men whom commit the greatest numbers of sexcrimes each year according to FBI Crime Statistics by Race but the media got y’all believing that BillCosby, NateParker, and any Black men are somehow rapists. Peep the game being run within this article and it shows that Brock Turner ain’t the only White male getting away with raping woman. “The student, identified in a federal lawsuit against Rider only as “John Doe,” was disciplined in December after a campus administrative panel found him at fault for an alleged sexual assault of two females student in a dorm room.” Notice they calling him “John Doe” as if he deceased and not a living breathing White man that got away with a repeated sex crimes. h t t p : / / nj1015 . com / bad-hookup-or-rape-nj-university-expels-student-never-prosecuted-for-sex-assault / In fact there are numerous cases of White men being found guilty of rape within a court of law and facing little and in many cases no prison time. h t t p : / / melanoidnation . org / why-are-so-many-white-male-rapists-avoiding-jail-time/

  8. I believe that people should put this controversy behind them go watch the film and enjoy it.

  9. AllWiledUp says:

    Parker’s initial remarks to Variety and Deadline stand as far as I’m concerned. He wasn’t in the least contrite, he viewed himself and Celestin as victims. If he’s going to become an “advocate” against (?) rape culture, then George Zimmerman (somebody else who was acquitted of a crime he committed) can become an advocate for gun control.

    And Parker and Celestin invented a fictional gang rape scenario to insert into Nat Turner’s story?

    Unbelievable – just like his protestations of innocence.

  10. Iván el Conquistador says:

    I hope this movie doesn’t win any award. After all those Best Picture prizes for Spotlight, it would be maximum hypocrite.

  11. Ed says:

    How about giving part of the profits to organizations that fight rape and abuse ? Would be a smart selling point…

    • Emmanuel Dark says:

      In other words you are satiating that Mr. Parker should literally pay penance i.e. be punished for a crime he didn’t commit.

  12. The original trial found Jean Celestin, co-writer of the story, wasfound guilty of rape; and so it stood from 1999 until the call for a re-trial in 2005; yet Celestin’s participation in the rape seems of little consequence given his involvement with the film.

    This doesn’t excuse Nate Parker’s sex with an unconscious woman, but it does illuminates more of what is involved besides a rape survivor who didn’t know the history of the movie’s progenitors.

  13. spike says:

    he’s still a self-centered piece of s–t. instead of whining and ass-kissing about how he’s changed, he needs to go down to the hood and help women who’ve been raped deal with it. and he needs to endow some educational programs for men so they will respect women. short of that he can’t make up for what he did 17 years ago. everything else is hypocrisy and he’s trying to skate out from under the dark cloud that has followed him ever since

    • Emmanuel Dark says:

      Your reply is that of a forming at the mouth bigot because Mr. Parker has been within three previous major film releases by A-list directors and there was never any mention of his “scandalous past”. This media generated fake-outrage is nothing more than character-assassination to poison the public perception of Mr. Parker and thereby try to make his film a flop. I’m telling you now it’s not working based on the news coming from Toronto. I look forward to reading the “White tears” and more fake-outrage reviews in the coming weeks and reading more reviews full of seething-animosity from biased i.e. brought and paid for film critics whom will have to feign objectivity despite being mad at the success of The Birth of a Nation.

  14. Clemence Gwinhi says:

    not a single comment about the actual film, kind of interested in the details of the film production, storyline and cast .etc….

  15. stevenkovacs says:

    Nate Parker, by his intentional deception at withholding the truth from investors and collaborators, has created the nuclear winter his film now finds itself in. He made himself toxic, even by Hollywood’s generous standards, and will cause untold fits of anxiety to his film’s investors (poor Michael Finley!), in his singular pursuit of fame. That the studio worries now about a shunning at it’s upcoming TIFF Gala is the fault of this man. Shame!

  16. Nero says:

    I don’t get it? All charges were dismissed, were they not? I’m not saying the guy did or didn’t do it. I wasn’t in the room 17 years ago. Nor was on the jury, or in the room with the judge who dismissed the charges. Are we to throw out our entire judicial system? I thought the point of it was to get a fair trial, and you’re either guilty or not guilty. To argue that, yore basically saying you don’t believe in our justice system. If so, that’s a whole different issue than Nate Parker.

    • B says:

      no, i don’t believe in a justice system that acquits murderers, murders innocents and lets off rapists on technicalities

    • eli says:

      No, charges weren’t just dismissed. Parker was found not guilty because he’d had consensual sex with the woman previously; back then if a woman said yes once meant she couldn’t possibly have said no some other time. It likely would not have held as a defense today. His classmate WAS found guilty, but, after the state declared the case had to be retried, the victim wasn’t able to emotionally go through it all again, so that’s where it was left.

      Besides the actual rape, both Parker and his classmate stalked and harrassed this woman mercilessly. We know that happened because the college actually paid her a small settlement–she sued the college for not protecting her from them (and won).

      Look, none of us were there, but it’s pretty clear from the evidence that the woman was passed out. A third man testified that Parker and his buddy offered to let him have her, too. He said, ‘No Thanks.’ It was a terrible thing to do. If Parker manned up and said, ‘I was a kid who made stupid choices, I’d make different choices today, I’m sorry she died, I’m sorry for her pain,’ then that would be different. But he hasn’t. He’s done manipulative shit like haul his baby girl to an interview to pressure reporters to not ask him hard questions. He’s said shit like he won’t play a gay man because of black manhood.

      Guy’s a douche.

      All the law says is that he wasn’t found deserving of prison. Great! Fortunately, he’s not IN prison!

      Doesn’t mean we gotta give him a passel of awards and a big platform to talk to a lot of college kids, including, presumably, college age women.

      • Coptic777 says:

        He was found not guilty mostly because of the audio tape recording her admitting consent several times saying this like “Im not going to say it was against my will, no Im not going to say that”. Also why was Nate & his friend not charged if he was harassing her? Why because having a private investigator ask questions about her is not harassment & the mere fact the DA never brought any such charges proves you people are just repeating what you want to fit your agenda. Also in Nate’s friends second trial the “victim” refused to testify AFTER she cashed that check from the university trying to make her go away. The problem THE OTHER WITNESSES FOR THE PROSECUTION REFUSED TO TESTIFY ON HER BEHALF AS WELL. Gee I wonder why? They saw through her just like the 11 white people & only one minority on the jury did. By her own admission AFTER she said she realized she was raped she made no attempt to escape, stayed, smoked a cigarette with Nate, went to sleep, woke up the next morning STILL MADE NO ATTEMPT TO ESCAPE, then claims she raped again??? One of her family members came out & said they thought the timing of this was suspicious & wanted no part in it. I read the official court transcripts. She is on tape saying it was consensual no matter much you people cluck & chick. Lets face it You people HATE the fact that he made this movie independently & got a standing ovation at the Toronto Film Festival & movies like this spark the beginning of more black people taking a stand. THAT’S WHAT REALLY SCARES YOU & VARIETY!

      • Chrissie says:

        Agree with Bo. Excellent post, Eli!

      • Bo says:

        This is just an excellent post, eli. Thank you. Perhaps, hopefully, you educated Nero’s naivety…and others too. Just very well stated. Thanks again.

    • BillUSA says:

      Doesn’t mean he wasn’t there, and by extension not involved.

  17. Alex Meyer says:

    This film’s Oscar chances are doomed.

  18. Janice says:

    Finally an article that lets women speak. Bravo Variety on finally showing the other side to this. Johnson for president! Agree with everything she says. No one wants to hear another word from this guy because they know that fundamentally it comes from a place of dishonesty and male privilege, the need to sell us his movie. As an academy voter he will never have my support.

  19. You know who says:

    What about Casey Affleck’s sexual harassment lawsuits?

    • Nora says:

      Mashable just posted a lengthy article about Affleck. Looks like his Oscar hopes may be dashed too.

    • Jake says:

      This guy gang raped a girl, got off on a technicality, stalked and intimidated her, then some time later she committed suicide. And then he spent years writing a movie where a rape is the spark of a movement.

      There’s way more elements to it than just sexual harassment. And in our current racial climate in this country, it’s a way bigger story.

      • Emmanuel Dark says:

        This alleged crime i.e. false-rape-charges happened almost 20 years ago and Mr. Parker and his associates were found innocent because evidence was presented during the trial that his then-girlfriend consented to group sex. She only made those charges based on a pregnancy-scare and more importantly word got out on her campus what a “sex-fiend” she was and she claimed was raped in order to save face.

    • CoCo says:

      What’s your point? This article is about Nate Parker. Pointing fingers at someone else is not a defense of him.

      • You know who says:

        My point is, there should be an article about Casey Affleck. Sorry if you’re butthurt that your fave is a pervert.

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