There’s no shortage of opinions when it comes to Nate Parker, but most people tend to fall in the camp of either letting disappointing, acquitted bygones be bygones, or once an accused rapist always a rapist who got over.
Several factors play into the school of thought which one eventually identifies with, including the importance of Parker’s upcoming film, Birth of a Nation; the so-called peculiar timing of this rape accusation being brought to light, the precedent of black men being accused of crimes not committed, the low conviction rate of rapists, and the overriding disappointment that a man so highly regarded could commit such a heinous crime. It’s for the latter reason that many find themselves feeling empathy for Parker, even in knowing the actions he set in motion that eventually led to him being accused of rape while at Penn State in 1999 were dead wrong. But if you ask feminist writer Roxane Gay about the matter, she’d tell you time’s up for empathy. In fact, that’s exactly what she told New York Times in an op-ed to appear in Sunday’s newspaper, “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy.”
As I get older, I try to have more empathy for other people, for the ways we fail one another. I often fall short. Today, I am struggling to have empathy for Nate Parker, a man experiencing the height of his career while being forced to reckon with his past.
Mr. Parker wrote, directed, produced and stars in the movie “The Birth of a Nation,” which chronicles the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831. The story the movie tells is important, and to see a movie like this getting mainstream attention is equally significant.
“The Birth of a Nation” made a big splash when it had its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival and was purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. As the movie’s publicity machine roars to life in advance of the October release, there is renewed interest in Mr. Parker and his history with sexual assault. There are renewed questions about whether we can or should separate the artist from his art. I am reminded that I cannot.
In 1999, Mr. Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a young woman while they were students and wrestlers at Penn State University. (They said that the sex was consensual.) There was a third man, Tamerlane Kangas, who chose not to participate in the incident. At the trial two years later, Mr. Kangas said, according to court transcripts, “I didn’t believe that four people at one time was — you know, it didn’t seem right.”
What happened in 1999 is a familiar story: college athletes, alcohol, a vulnerable woman and allegations of sexual assault. The unnamed woman pressed charges against Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin, claiming she was drunk, unconscious and unable to consent to sex.
The victim said that she was harassed and intimidated on campus by Mr. Parker, Mr. Celestin and their supporters. She twice attempted suicide, according to court records. She dropped out of school. The 2001 trial took three days. That the rape case even went to trial is a rarity. Mr. Parker was acquitted, based partly on testimony that he and the victim had previously had consensual sex. Mr. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison, but the conviction was eventually overturned. The victim, who sued Penn State because she said the university did not protect her from the harassment she endured after filing charges, received a settlement of $17,500.
Both Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin now have families and successful careers. They remain friends and collaborators. The victim, well, she committed suicide in 2012 and left behind a young son. She can no longer speak for herself.
Mr. Parker is being forced to publicly reckon with his past, and he is doing a lousy job. I want to have empathy for him, but everything he says and does troubles me. You see, what happened in 1999 was a “painful moment” in his life. Most of what he has to say about that “painful moment” involves how he felt, how he was affected. The solipsism is staggering.
In an interview with Deadline.com, the entertainment news site, Mr. Parker said: “I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.” He offers up the women in his life as incontrovertible evidence of goodness or, perhaps, redemption. But no matter how much he wishes it to be so, his women cannot erase his past. He went so far as to bring his 6-year-old daughter to an interview where he knew he would be questioned about the circumstances surrounding the rape trial — a strange, manipulative and even cynical choice. To this day, he believes he did nothing wrong, though he also says he has “grown” and is a “changed” man.
I have my own history with sexual violence, so I cannot consider such stories with impartiality, though I do try. It is my gut instinct to believe the victim because there is nothing at all to be gained by going public with a rape accusation except the humiliations of the justice system and public scorn. Only an estimated 2 to 10 percent of rape accusations are false. And to have sex with a woman who said she was blackout drunk, to do so with a friend — that is a crime, whether the justice system agrees or not.
When it comes to sexual violence, I do not know what justice looks like; no one does. According to the Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network, out of every 1,000 rapes, 344 will be reported to the police, 63 of those reports will lead to an arrest, 13 cases will be referred to a prosecutor, seven of those cases will lead to a felony conviction and six of those perpetrators will serve prison time. They will serve that time in a broken system that incarcerates without offering offenders any kind of real rehabilitation.
And how long does someone pay for their bad decisions, or their crimes? It has been 17 years since whatever took place at Penn State. As Mr. Parker keeps pointing out, he was cleared of the charges. Do we take him at his word that he is a changed man, that he should be forgiven? Do we dare dismiss Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin’s actions as youthful indiscretions?
On Aug. 16, Mr. Parker posted a statement on Facebook, an inadequate act of contrition. “I write to you all devastated,” he began. He referred to himself, several times, as a “man of faith.” He expressed sorrow for the victim’s death, which he said he had heretofore been unaware of. He affirmed his belief in women’s rights. On the surface, the statement seems heartfelt enough, but it also feels hollow, like a parroting of what Nate Parker thinks he is supposed to say to redeem himself.
He would have us believe that he made bad decisions at 19, and has learned from them. We have all made our fair share of bad decisions. There is a canyon of difference, however, between bad decisions and allegations of rape. I also wonder how much Mr. Parker has really changed when he continues to befriend the man with whom he shared what he terms one of the most painful moments in his life. Mr. Celestin shares a story credit on “The Birth of a Nation,” a detail that continues to stun me.
I’ve enjoyed Mr. Parker’s work as an actor over the years — his role in “The Great Debaters,” his strong turn in “Beyond the Lights.” I have not enjoyed some of his statements about masculinity that read like homophobia, such as the interview in which he reportedly said he would never play a gay man to “preserve the black man,” whatever that means. As with most artists, I was forced to reconcile his talent with his flaws.
We’ve long had to face that bad men can create good art. Some people have no problem separating the creation from the creator. I am not one of those people, nor do I want to be. I recognize that people are complex and cannot be solely defined by their worst deeds, but I can no longer watch “The Cosby Show,” for example, without thinking of the numerous sexual assault accusations against Bill Cosby. Suddenly, his jokes are far less funny.
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.
Are you with her?