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.