A dark chapter in the past of actor and filmmaker Nate Parker has come back to haunt him ahead of the release of The Birth of a Nation, a movie about a Virginia slave rebellion in 1831 that many heralded as an Oscar frontrunner when it screened at Sundance in January. In recent weeks, details surrounding a rape accusation he faced while in college have come to light and, despite his acquittal of the charges, he has had to confront them in the press and on his social media.
In 1999, an 18-year-old Penn State student accused Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin (who received a “story by” credit for Birth of a Nation) of sexually assaulting her at their apartment while she was intoxicated and unconscious. The New York Times cites court documents that claim that after she pressed charges, the two men harassed, intimidated and stalked her. Both Parker and Celestin have maintained that the sex was consensual, and the filmmaker – who said he’d previously had consensual oral sex with the accuser, whose name is not public – was acquitted in 2001. Variety reports that Celestin was convicted of sexual assault but appealed the verdict; he received a new trial in 2005, but the case never went to court because the accuser declined to testify.
News broke this week that the accuser committed suicide in a drug rehab facility, overdosing on sleeping pills in 2012. Her death certificate said she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse,” according to Variety. The woman’s brother, identified only as Johnny in Variety, said that the trial was a turning point in her life and that it “changed [her] as a person.” She ultimately sued the school for failing to keep her safe and received a $17,500 settlement. “I think the ghosts continued to haunt her,” her brother said.
When The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance, it generated an immense amount of buzz, earning both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. Parker directed and stars in the film, which he also co-wrote and co-produced. He had made the film, the Times reports, with the intention of making America face its past regarding slavery, saying that ignoring it paved the way for today’s civil rights protests. Fox Searchlight paid a record-setting $17.5 million for the film, which seemed like a strong contender to be a remedy for the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that surrounded recent Academy Awards ceremonies. Spike Lee has since embraced it and urged moviegoers to embrace it.
The film is set to open on October 7th, and Parker, whose prior acting credits include roles in The Secret Life of Bees, Non-Stop and Lee’s Red Hook Summer, has been active in promoting it ahead of the release. But as news of the accusation has spread along with the coda that the woman killed herself, he has had to address the past. “I was sure it would come up,” Parker told Deadline last week. “I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges.”
He also said he did not want the case to give people a wrong impression of his attitude toward women or his feelings about sexual assault. “I want women to stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree, as I prepare to take my own daughter to college,” he said.
Parker subsequently posted a statement he said was “written from my heart” on Facebook addressing his past, saying he was “filled with profound sorrow” to learn that the accuser had killed herself. “I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time,” he wrote. “I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.
“I cannot change what has happened,” he continued. “I cannot bring this young woman who was someone else’s daughter, someone’s sister and someone’s mother back to life.”
He went on to write that he had changed greatly since he was 19 and that he “tried to conduct [himself] in a way that honors [his] entire community.” He also underscored his commitment, writing, “I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will.”
Fox Searchlight also released a statement. “[The company] is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State,” it reads, according to The Associated Press. “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.”
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Meanwhile, the accuser’s family asked the public for understanding in a statement to the Times Tuesday. “We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions,” it read. “However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals. While we cannot protect the victim from this media storm, we can do our best to protect her son. For that reason, we ask for privacy for our family and do not wish to comment further.”
Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, however, had her own statement. “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore,'” she said. “These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”