Last year, a friend called me out of the blue to ask if I would speak to an investigative reporter. I was told he wanted to know about my sister, who was raped when she was a freshman at Penn State University.
I was thrilled that anyone still cared about that grave injustice — even if I didn’t understand why. I soon learned that the two defendants in her case, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, had made a movie together called “The Birth of a Nation.” It was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival and was considered a strong contender for an Academy Award.
My voice trembled as I spoke to that reporter. I told how brave she was to testify against two college athletes, and how she was attacked on the stand and scorned and forced to drop out of school. And I told how betrayed she felt when the system failed her, when Parker was acquitted and Celestin’s conviction was overturned on a technicality.
That was the turning point in her life. While Nate Parker built a career in Hollywood, my sister spiraled into depression and ultimately lost touch with reality. In 2012, she committed suicide. But I will never forget her bravery, and that’s why I had to speak up for her.
Hollywood has always looked the other way when it comes to sexual misconduct. When disturbing stories emerge, we are told to separate the art from the artist. Even last year, the president of the Academy urged people to go see “The Birth of a Nation” and consider it independently of the director’s past.
But asking us to ignore an artist’s misconduct and focus on the art just protects that artist’s career from the consequences of his actions. I hope that with “The Birth of a Nation,” which fared poorly both financially and among Oscar voters, we have begun to realize that that won’t cut it anymore.
For real change to occur, the consequences have to be real. No one should get a pass, no matter how powerful or successful or brilliant or talented. No one.
Now we are seeing several powerful men fall every week. Too late — far too late for my sister — we are starting to take women’s allegations seriously. I know how hard it is for these women to come forward, not knowing if they’ll be believed or attacked.
I know the risk they’re taking — the risk of humiliation, the risk that your voice won’t matter — and the bitterness that comes when the perpetrator just moves on like nothing ever happened.
And I’m really proud of my sister, and of the risk she took when she was 18 years old. I think she helped start this revolution, and I hope that as a result, women will be safer in the workplace, and in hotel rooms and in dorm rooms and everywhere else.
I wish she were here to see this moment. But I’m glad that her son — my nephew — can see it. And I’m glad he can know that his mother was brave and strong, and in her too short life, she left a lasting legacy.
As told to Gene Maddaus