When Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” premiered at Sundance in January, scoring a $17.5 million sale from Fox Searchlight — the biggest in the festival’s history — its director-writer-star was heralded as promising new voice in film.
But a rape trial from his past now threatens to cast a shadow over the release of the movie and its Oscar campaign. In 1999, as a student and wrestler at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin — who went on to co-write the story for “The Birth of a Nation”— were charged with raping a 18-year-old female student in their apartment after a night of drinking.
In a two-hour interview with Variety on Wednesday, Parker was asked to address the circumstances behind the trial.
“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker told 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” — he took a long silence — “I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
At the time, Parker admitted he had sex but claimed it was consensual. The woman said that she was unconscious, and did not consent to having sex with Parker or Celestin. She also claimed that she was stalked and harassed by Parker and Celestin after she reported the incident to the police.
Parker was suspended from the wrestling team, and later transferred to a different college in Oklahoma. In a 2001 trial, he was acquitted, based on testimony that he had previously had consensual sexual relations with his accuser. But his roommate was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. Celestin appealed the verdict, and a second trial in 2005 was thrown out due to the victim not wanting to testify again. (She sued the university and was awarded a $17,500 settlement out of court.)
The case has now resurfaced, because of the attention around “The Birth of a Nation.” Celestin is credited with co-writing the story about the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner, which speaks to current racial tensions in America (as well as within the Academy after two consecutive years of #OscarsSoWhite). But the details that have emerged from Parker’s past could end up deflecting the conversation in another direction.
The specifics of the trial are likely to be re-investigated and scrutinized as Parker enters into the spotlight, and begins doing months of press. “My life will be examined and put under the microscope in ways that it never has,” Parker said, pointing to individuals on Twitter who criticized him for having a white wife. “There are numerous things that are surfacing,” he said. “But I’ve always been an open book. I’m an advocate of justice. I’m an older man. I’ve matured a lot. I’ve had many obstacles in my life. I grew up very poor. My father passed away. There are so many things that happened. At the same time, I am the man that I am. I am open to the scrutiny. I will never hide anything from my past.”
Parker, who brought his 6-year-old daughter to the Variety interview, declined to speak about the specifics of the case. “Look at it through the context of 17 years,” he said. “It was a very painful for everyone who went through it. What I learned through 17 years of growth and having children and having a wife and building a family is that we have to fight for what’s right. We have to lead in love.”
On the day after his interview with Variety, Parker arranged to speak with Deadline for a story about the case. In an email, Celestin told the site: “This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of,” he said. “I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career.”
Fox Searchlight issued a statement: “Fox Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”