Nate Parker is having trouble staying on-message.
In a pre-taped appearance on Sunday night’s “60 Minutes” and a live appearance on “Good Morning America” this morning, “The Birth of a Nation” writer/director/star struggled to maintain the posture of humility and understanding that he has attempted to build up over the past month with regards to a 1999 rape accusation that ended with Parker’s acquittal and the alleged victim’s suicide in 2012.
Parker has been making the rounds to promote his film — a passion project years in the making that opens in theaters this Friday. The film was received rapturously by audiences as Sundance, leading to the film winning the grand jury prize and sparking the beginnings of Oscar speculation. But about a month ago, Variety and other outlets began to ask questions about the 1999 case, which led to Parker himself learning that his accuser had gone on to kill herself. While Parker avoided conviction, his roommate Jean Celestin — who was with Parker, and also had sex with the plaintiff — was initially convicted of sexual assault and served time behind bars. His verdict was later vacated. Parker and Celestin continued to be friends, and together co-wrote “Birth of a Nation.”
On last night’s “60 Minutes,” interviewer Anderson Cooper asked him, “Do you feel guilty about anything that happened that night?” Parker responded, “I don’t feel guilty.” He went on to aver that he had nothing to apologize for. To Robin Roberts on “Good Morning America,” he said, “I was falsely accused… I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.” While Parker was largely even-keeled with Cooper — not apologizing, but choking up when he says, “I was vindicated,” on “Good Morning America” he seemed far more agitated, frustrated with the questions and trying to turn away from them with desperate deflection. “This isn’t about me,” he said, of the film that he co-wrote, directed, plays the lead in, and is now promoting.
This is an odd pivot for Parker, one that reverts back to his initial response to the questions posed about the 1999 incident. Then and now, he seems confused and even put out that anyone is asking him questions about the incident. Admittedly, for Parker, it was almost half a lifetime ago. But Parker’s approach with the media — with one exception — has been one of defensiveness and impatience. He distanced the film from Celestin’s involvement and later termed the events as a “fun” “threesome.” Which suggests that even if Parker is not, as he says, guilty of any wrongdoing, he still does not understand how troubling and pervasive the problem of sexual assault is in our culture (and specifically on college campuses). He struggles to understand that viewers and readers might want more seriousness or accountability on this topic.
The exception — i.e., the indication that Parker’s consciousness had begun to change — is an Ebony.com interview with Britni Danielle, in which the filmmaker confesses both that his understanding of consent at that age was limited and that he had a lot to learn from the responses to the story. He doesn’t come off as a saint, either, but that’s precisely what makes the interview so human; in tandem with living inside his worldview, he’s also acknowledging that he’s begun to understand that there are limits to that worldview. This, for example, is a telling excerpt:
EBONY.com: Had you thought about her and this incident over the last 17 years? Nate Parker: No, I had not. I hadn’t thought about it at all.
EBONY.com: That’s going to come off very…privileged.
Nate Parker: It is! Listen to me when I say I’m understanding that I’m dealing with a problem, like an addiction. Just like you can be addicted to White Supremacy and all of the benefits, you can be addicted to male privilege and all of the benefits that comes from it. It’s like someone pointing at you and you have a stain on your shirt and you don’t even know it.
I’m a work in progress. I’m trying to be better. I feel remorse for all the women that are survivors that felt I was being insensitive because I was. And I want to have a better understanding of how I can be more of an ally, if they’ll accept me. There will be people who won’t accept me, and that’s okay. All I can do is say that I stand for justice and really learn more about this issue so I can be a better ally of this issue.
Wherever this measured response came from, it’s no longer present. The nuance in Parker’s approach to this incident has evaporated over the last 24 hours, putting moviegoers who are concerned about the allegations back into an unpleasant gray area. Parker can’t make this go away by ignoring it or pretending it’s not important, because that exacerbates the image that he doesn’t care about either the victim or about sexual assault in America. And given that he is promoting a movie that sheds light on a forgotten history, he can’t really argue that what’s happened in the past doesn’t matter anymore. As Parker would have said himself about Turner’s under-reported, under-taught, and oft-maligned “insurrection,” all of history deserves our attention.
Parker’s lamentation that “this isn’t about me” is telling. Parker, like Lin-Manuel Miranda, Lena Dunham, Woody Allen, and any number of beloved or disgraced auteurs, put a lot of himself into this production. But the problem with being a one-person wunderkind is that when you write, direct, star, and produce your own work, the art and the person behind it become very hard to separate. Because Parker is so essential to “Birth of a Nation” — because he so clearly felt a mission to resurrect the story of Nat Turner by actually embodying him — then yes, to talk about the film is to talk about Parker.
And that is where Cooper, on “60 Minutes,” observed something interesting. Parker eliminated some of the more unsavory elements of Turner’s rebellion — such as, specifically, the fact that in the process of rebelling, Turner and his fellow rebels killed white women and children. Parker dismissed the criticism without really addressing it, saying, “There’s never been a film that was 100 percent historically accurate. That’s why they say ‘based on a true story.’” The implication was that Turner’s indiscretions, if that’s what they even were, were not relevant to Parker’s grander narrative. It seems, given Parker’s identification with Turner, that the filmmaker would prefer that the press also decide that the story of Nat Turner’s rebellion was more relevant than whatever indiscretions lay in Parker’s past — indiscretions that he has, to his mind, already atoned for. But the problem with this approach is that the measure of a person is not so black and white; righteous acts do not erase previous sins; and people are not wholly good or wholly evil. “Birth of a Nation” is posited as a more complete version of history. But Parker seems uncomfortable with complete histories, when it comes to both his film’s hero and his own past.