Nate Parker's Critics Are Convinced He's a Rapist, But It's More Complicated Than That

Black writers are boycotting "The Birth of a Nation," but their certainty about Parker is misplaced.


Brian Branch Price/ZUMA Press/Newscom

The public seems to be turning against Nate Parker, a celebrated black filmmaker and actor whose forthcoming movie about an 1831 slave rebellion—The Birth of a Nation—is now besieged by bad press. Critics, including many from within the black community, are vowing not to see the film.

"I have not yet seen the movie, and now I won't," wrote Roxane Gay.

Meanwhile, the American Film Institute has cancelled a planned screening of the film until "conversations'" can take place. The Birth of a Nation's Oscar chances seem to be in freefall.

What's going on here? Parker and his friend Jean Celestin—credited as a co-writer of the film—were accused of raping a woman 17 years ago, when they were students on the wrestling team at Pennsylvania State University. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty, but his conviction was eventually overturned.

The details of the allegation have always been public, but the media is paying more attention to them now that Parker's star is rising. It also recently came out that the the alleged victim committed suicide in 2012 after struggling with mental illness.

Of course, Parker's personal failings don't necessarily have anything to do with his movie, or whether it's any good. But whenever a popular artist is revealed as an odious human being, a familiar debate rears its head: can we appreciate a work of art even if its creator is super problematic? Are Bill Cosby's jokes funny if he was actually a serial rapist? Do Woody Allen's films have any artistic merit if the man molested his daughter? And so on.

Gay says she just can't separate Parker from his film, and has no plans to see it:

I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.

"The Birth of a Nation" is being billed as an important movie — something we must see, a story that demands to be heard. I have not yet seen the movie, and now I won't. Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or "important" it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. No amount of empathy could make that possible.

A New York Magazine roundtable featuring several black entertainment writers was even more stridently condemning of Parker. "Is It Okay to See Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation?" was the headline. Probably not, was the implicit answer. The writers castigated Parker for not offering a more meaningful apology, though at least one, Ashley Weatherford, noted she wouldn't have forgiven him, anyway:

Ashley Weatherford: "A thing that disappointed me a lot was Parker's apology, or the lack thereof. To call something an apology you need the word "sorry," or "I apologize." His statement had neither. He needed those words. Not to say that they would make me forgive him."

Lindsay Peoples: "Yeah. His Facebook post wasn't great. I wish he would stop repeating that he is "a husband and father of daughters," as if this makes him incapable of sexual assault. It actually makes it worse because in the transcript of his phone call to the victim, he describes some very disturbing events; things that he would never want to happen to his own daughters. To know that this woman killed herself years ago, and to refrain from using the word "sorry" in his post was a horrible decision."

Dayna Evans: "While I maintain my innocence …" Man, the woman is dead, at least pretend that you have some respect for that fact. This was the letter of a man trying desperately to appeal to the set of people who would inevitably say, "Hey, the law is the law and Nate Parker was acquitted." And so help me God, if I read one more man justifying the fact that he has only learned how to treat a woman with decency now that he has a daughter …"

The decision to boycott a work of art because its creator is problematic might feel viscerally satisfying to people who are particularly animated about the creator's specific brand of moral failing. But these boycotts always end up looking hypocritical, in the long run. The Birth of a Nation is a product of the efforts of hundreds of people—many of them people of color, and women. Should their achievements be overlooked because Parker did a very bad thing? I doubt seriously that anyone who says yes to that question applies such a standard evenly, particularly outside of the world of art.

But the public debate over whether audiences can still appreciate The Birth of a Nation if its creator raped a woman actually misses a more important point: Parker was found not guilty by a jury, and there is at least some chance that verdict was the correct one. Given this, the people who refuse to see The Birth of a Nation don't even know for sure that they are punishing an actual rapist.

The reverse is also true: it's of course possible that Parker committed a crime and got away with it. But there's no way to know for sure, and anyone who expresses absolute confidence in Parker's innocent or guilt is probably ideologically predisposed toward doubting or believing alleged victims of rape.

Gay, Weatherford, Peoples, Evans, et al certainly seem to fall in the latter category. Their condemnations of Parker leave zero room for doubt—none of them even consider the idea that he might not be a rapist. Weatherford even writes, "the evidence is quite overwhelming." Her overwhelming evidence? The fact that Parker later told the alleged victim she had been drunk, but still in control, during the encounter. That sounds like a denial to me, not a confession.

I've already written about the details of the allegation: go here if you need a refresher. I don't know what actually happened—I wasn't there—and the evidence simply isn't persuasive enough for me to hazard a guess. As I said with respect to Juanita Broaddrick's rape accusation against Bill Clinton, I can't know what I don't know.

But it's just plain wrong to say that the evidence was "quite overwhelming." The primary corroborating witness, Tamerlane Kangas, was threatened by cops—they essentially told him he would face charges, too, if he didn't give them something they could use against Parker and Celestin.

And, as Cathy Young points out, Parker was a black man accused of raping a white woman. The jury was all white, except for one black woman. How many liberals who believe the criminal justice system is hopelessly racist, and stacked against black male defendants in particular, nevertheless believe it's a certainty that a black man got off easy in this particular case? Is that not a troubling contradiction?

Parker, Celestin, and the victim were all drinking. Whether the victim drank too much to be capable of consenting is in dispute. She may have been completely unconscious, which would make both Parker and Celestin rapists. Or she may have appeared conscious, but was unable to give the kind of affirmative consent now required by colleges, though still unheard of it 1999. Or she may have been sober enough to consent, but too drunk to remember later that she had done so—alcohol lowers people's inhibitions, and people consent to things when they are drunk that they wouldn't have consented to otherwise. It could be the case that Parker had consent, but Celestin did not—if this were so, it would mean the courts actually got it right (at least the first time). Or it could be the case that the encounter was fully consensual and the woman later re-contextualized it as rape because she was ashamed of having sex with two black men.

I don't think this last scenario is very likely. But I really couldn't say which of the previous scenarios is most likely. And even if the most likely scenario is the one where Parker and Celestin both raped the woman, I wouldn't say that it's overwhelmingly supported by the evidence—that the evidence is so persuasive, it is vital for the public to boycott Parker's films 17 years later, despite his acquittal.

Of course, it's a free country, and no one has to watch The Birth of a Nation if they don't want to. The criminal justice system should operate under a presumption of innocence, but there's no requirement that public opinion behave the same way. Anyone who wants to believe that Parker is a rapist is free to do so. But don't act so surprised that Parker refuses to let his life be destroyed by the accusation against him. He says he didn't do it, and no one has proven otherwise.

None of this means that the victim doesn't deserve our sympathy—because she was a victim, regardless of what happened that night in 1999. She was harassed by members of campus who viewed her as a traitor to the school and an enemy of a popular sports team. She eventually settled with Penn State, which failed to protect her. And years later, she took her own life after succumbing to mental illness. It's a terribly sad story, and one in which Parker unarguably plays a role. We know that justice is often elusive for victims of sexual assault, whether they go through the campus adjudication system or the courts. But justice is also more than occasionally elusive for people wrongfully accused of sexual assault—including a great number of black men.

We shouldn't be so certain that we know for sure which side was robbed of justice in this case.

NEXT: Finally: University of Chicago Warns Freshmen Not to Expect Safe Spaces, Trigger Warnings

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  1. Well this is troublesome. What is more important? Rape culture or institutional racism? The Atlantic already had a story with a byline stating how Nate Parker raping a white woman is particularly difficult for black women, so they’ve managed to find a way to make it about both.

    1. Nate Parker raping a white woman is particularly difficult for black women

      How so?

      1. White privilege!

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  2. No idea if he did it, and is somebody doesn’t want to see the movie I can’t blame them. But I sure hope all those people are boycotting R. Kelly as well…

    1. Look, if I see pee, I move. She saw pee and she didn’t move. Case closed.

    2. Oh no, that happened pre-outragemachine and R. is okay. Also okay: Roman Polanski, Rick James, Tupac, etc.

      1. In the case of Rick James, I’m not so sure that people forgive anything. More like “fuck it, it’s Rick James, what are you going to do?”.

  3. Nate Parker’s Critics Are Convinced He’s a Rapist, But It’s More Complicated Than That

    You see, he’s an electron rapist. (*)

    (*) Wave and particle.

    1. Thanks, Feynman.

  4. Ironically, the original Birth of a Nation was about a Black man raping a while woman who then committed suicide.

    1. So this is all a guerilla ad campaign gone wrong?

  5. Woody Allen molested his step-daughter? Citation needed.

      1. I believe Libertarian is aware of the charges in that case but does not find them credible and while I dislike nearly everything about Woddy Allen including most of his crappy overrated movies I tend to agree. I t absolutely looks like Mia Farrow planted those memories in Dylan to get back at Woody over Soon Yi

    1. I thought he married his step-daughter.

  6. Progs eating their own. Not my concern.

    Hey maybe this due process thing has some merit….. eh?

  7. Is Reason now paying by the word?

    1. Is Reason now paying by the word?

      Does Reason pay by the word? No idea. I don’t have the first clue; your guess is as good as mine. It’s hard to ascertain, one way or the other, if Reason pays by the word.

  8. Matthew Broderick killing women didn’t stop everyone from loving his Godzilla movie.

    1. I don’t even know where to start with this.

      1. It’s easy. Just say the first crazy thing that comes to mind.. Example:

        Osama Bin Laden was an Uncle Tom!

  9. can we appreciate a work of art even if its creator is super problematic?

    Yes. Next question.

    1. Let me know when they boycott the work of the Ukrainian famine denier, George Bernard Shaw.

      Or the Stalinist Paul Robeson.

      1. It’s a good thing Hitler was a drab and uninspired painter.

  10. The “Rape Culture” hysterics hate due process and the presumption of onnocence because both show them up as the lynch mobs they are.

  11. “Celestin was found guilty, but his conviction was eventually overturned.”

    When I looked this up the last time it was discussed here, I saw that his conviction was overturned because his lawyer provided legally-inadequate assistance. So that taints the verdict.

    Also IIRC the complainant accused a friend of kidnapping her when the friend didn’t actually kidnap her.

    But by all means boycott him because he’s a crazed rapist wondering where the white women are at.

    This will make me feel a bit better about watching the movie, since many of the politically-correct community will be pissed at me for watching rather than rejoicing that I’m learning Valuable Lessons About My Whiteness.

    1. Imagine the nightmare – you’re accused of a serious crime, there are important things that need to be done for your defense, but you lawyer is sitting there woolgathering, or nursing a hangover, and doesn’t give you the help you need.

  12. Guilty until proven innocent, then you are in purgatory — a de facto guilty for zealots.

  13. So, all the people who were not jurors at the trial and did not see and hear all the evidence know better than the people who were jurors and did hear the evidence and acquitted him? And that 11 out of 12 of the jurors were white, and thus we can probably rule out that the jury was overly lenient on him? Maybe, thus maybe, the jury concluded, hey, the state failed to make its case?

    1. Shorter … I’m gonna afford a defendent who was exonerated by a jury the continuing presumption of innocence, unless there’s something about the trial that leads me to believe that the jury completely made a bad call.

    2. A person could rationally believe both A) the court case was properly decided, and B) he is a rapist.

      1. That is where I am with OJ Simpson.

        The Jury verdict was absolutely correct, largely on account of the cops being caught red handed manufacturing and manipulating evidence tainting all of the evidence I do not believe the State was able to prove it’s case beyond a reasonable doubt.

        That said I think it is overwhelmingly likely that OJ was guilty of murder.

  14. So this is how low we have gone. A man’s career is effectively ruined before it even starts because some autistic SJW dug up a 17 year-old accusation for which the men had their day in court and no one was convicted.

    I read the U of Chicago “no safe space” story and felt pretty good, to be immediately brought right back down again by this. Bravo, world….

    1. Birth of a Nation, progressives, and allegations of black sexual predators causing white women to commit suicide — it’s like some sort of history remix. Hopefully the fun comedy version that Marx promised us.

  15. Why bother lowering the standard of evidence when an accusation has the same consequences as a conviction? (I know that’s not the case now, it just seems like a two pronged attack, sort of like how taxes can simultaneously raise revenue while discouraging consumption)

  16. As a libertarian, or whatever it is that I am, I get good practice at separating the artist from the art. If I judged art and entertainment on the politics or personality of the artist, it would be slim pickings.

    And I think that looking at art as an independent entity, distinct from the creator is the right way to do it in most cases. I don’t really care if he spends his spare time impaling babies on metal spikes. If it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie.

    1. I don’t really care if he spends his spare time impaling babies on metal spikes. If it’s a good movie, it’s a good movie.

      I have trouble with flagrant and/or ongoing violations of the NAP. Aside from that, I think people are idiots to care about a 17-yr.-old maybe-sorta rape. Even if he flat out raped her, 17 yrs. is a plenty of time to become something completely different. Moreover, people get forcibly raped by horrible terrible predators and manage not to kill themselves because of it. Lots of people survive awkward non-consentual sexual encounters and, especially after 17 yrs., carry zero emotional psychological baggage.

    2. Do you think the art is actually going to be good, and not just be hate propaganda like the first one?

      1. I was expecting a hagiography that whitewashed it into a pure good and pure evil narrative, but from all the reviews I’ve seen (Pan posted some here as well) Parker’s take on the events is actually fairly nuanced. For example, in reality the black hero’s mob murdered women in their beds, and it’s depicted.

  17. I thought progs were deeply concerned about the injustices faced by young black men in the courts?

  18. Parker was acquitted.

    I don’t have time to read any of the linked articles or research the original case, so I might be missing something important here. Do the above quoted words mean anything?

    1. It means that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury. So it doesn’t necessarily mean he is innocent. If the “reasonable doubt” standard is properly applied, I would expect some guilty people to go free from time to time.

      That said, absent some really strong evidence, it’s only reasonable to assume the innocence of people who are acquitted.

      1. It means that there was insufficient evidence to prove his guilt beyond a reasonable doubt to the jury.

        Ah, OK, that makes a progressive lynch mob A-OK then? Democrats don’t ever change, do they?

  19. Why can’t he use the same excuse as Polanski? His life has been so traumatic, what with the racism and everything, hasn’t he been punished enough?

  20. It’s always funny to me watching progressives deal with the mental anguish of having to boycott something they would otherwise enjoy because they disagree with the politics/behavior/whatever of the creator.

    As a libertarian, I realized a long time ago that I don’t have that luxury. I refuse to only be entertained by vince vaughn movies and drew carey tv shows.

    1. I must have missed it — what did Vince Vaughn and Drew Carey do?

      1. Vaughn and Carey are avowed libertarians. Hence, if a libertarian only would enjoy programming made by idealogical matches, one would be stuck with limited options.

    2. Hey, you could watch Penn and Teller, Bullshit on an endless loop

    3. You’d also have most of Rush’s discography to listen to although of late they seem to have disavowed whatever libertarianish/objectivist views they had and moved more towards the proggie side of things.

      1. I forgot about Bullshit. Was a favorite of mine awhile ago.

        I never got into Rush. I don’t explore music very often and since in I’m in my late twenties, I guess they were just before my time. I guess when it comes to “political” music, Tool is my favorite. I’ll check Rush out though. What songs or albums would you recommend for someone who knows nothing about them?

        1. If you want the more ‘libertarian’ stuff, 2112 has a twenty minute song based on Rand’s Anthem.

          For more general music, albums like Moving Pictures, Fly By Night, Signals, etc. I also really like most of Hold Your Fire.

          1. I also suggest Permanent Waves (“Free Will”, et al.).

      2. Peart has moved to the more progressive side, the rest of the band is way less political I believe. But Peart’s been completely flipping himself around since his wife and daughter died, he also went from a pretty obvious atheist to an obnoxious born-again lecturing Christian.

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  22. Of course, Parker’s personal failings don’t necessarily have anything to do with his movie, or whether it’s any good.

    I suppose we should consider this to be an improvement over your previously calling him “her attacker”.

  23. i can’t fathom the degree to which a community that gave woody allen and roman polanski their highest honor must must feel about wrestling with this terrible moral dilemma.

    1. You don’t understand. Parker was a wrestler, a jock. In pure social cadre vindictiveness, jock outweighs black.

  24. “Or it could be the case that the encounter was fully consensual and the woman later re-contextualized it as rape because she was ashamed of having sex with two black men.

    I don’t think this last scenario is very likely.”

    Stop it with the virtue signaling Robbie, given the way that the trials played out there is a VERY good chance that this or something very much like this is EXACTLY what happened. It might not be the most likely story but it is certainly up there towards the top of the list.

    This is especially true given that the womans mental health issues preceded the night in question. It is not like she had a bad sexual experience and that sent her down a path towards insanity and eventually suicide, she had mental issues before this happened and that dramatically increases the odds that in her head she re-contextualized a consentual encounter into a rape.

    The LEAST likely story?

    That is that in 1999 an all white jury in central Pennsylvania would acquit a black man for “gang raping” unless there was just no evidence whatsoever that he was guilty.

    1. Yep. or… more kindly… On what basis does Robbie conclude that this last scenario is not very likely? No opinions are offered on the likelihood of the other scenarios.

  25. In one short sentence = why should i care?

  26. Roman Polanski bait article.

    I just know his name was invoked by someone in the comment section.

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  28. Roman Polanski: White Privilege.

  29. The writer could have saved us all a lot of time by starting off with the question “What is your preference, rape culture or racism?”

    I prefer to let the activists have it out amongst themselves. There too much indignation for me to hang around.

  30. 2 reasons the progs are going to eat them selves on this one:
    -first and foremost it’s the usual narcissistic grandstanding on social media against cause du jour to point out that one is more supreme/evolved than the rest of us
    – and second, now that his accusations are public if you go to see this movie you obviously support rape, so says social media?

    I’m honestly fascinated with how deep the PC speech and behavior people have painted themselves into a corner. It seems that the pressure to not be called out on social media for anything increases exponentially by the day. It reminds me of a black hole caving in on itself and wondering at what density can they take this modern PC movement to, until it explodes outward again. They have even taken comedians out of the equation so that there is no more pressure relief valve. Three years? Five years? How far can they take this? I suppose a renewed study of the USSR is in order.

    1. @10mm — Pretty insightful comment. With its narcissism, embrace of the victimhood role, emotional arrested development and all-or-none thinking the online progressive movement has turned itself into quite a dysfunctional player in the drama triangle. Unfortunately the only way off the triangle is in the role of victim by refusing to play the role. And it’s doubtful that happens anytime soon.

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