This is a cautionary tale about how your past can come back to haunt you. It’s the stuff Hollywood films are made of, only this is real life. Nate Parker (“Beyond the Lights” 2014), (“The Great Debaters” 2007) wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film “The Birth of a Nation,” which chronicles the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in Virginia in 1831. Parker appears to be on the brink of incredible success with the pending release of his film.
“The Birth of a Nation” made a big splash, when it had its premiere this year at the Sundance Film Festival and was purchased by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. Earning both the grand jury and audience prizes in the U.S. Dramatic competition, “The Birth of a Nation” is even being looked at as an early contender for a 2017 Academy Award. However, at this point it’s not the film that’s getting all the attention. Now it’s Parker himself. The young filmmaker has found himself in a public relations nightmare.
In 1999, Nate Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin, who is also co-writer of the “Birth of a Nation” script, were accused of raping a young woman while they were students and on the wrestling team at Penn State University.
The Penn State freshman alleged that she was intoxicated and unconscious at the time. However, Parker and Celestin both maintain that the encounter was consensual.
The 2001 trial took three days. Parker was acquitted, based partly on testimony that he and the victim had previously had consensual sex. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to prison, but the conviction was eventually overturned.
The victim (referred to only as ‘Jane Doe’) said that she was harassed and intimidated on campus by Parker, Celestin and their supporters. She twice attempted suicide after going to the police about the initial incident. She later filed a lawsuit which argued that the university favored student athletes and that the university did not protect her from the harassment she endured after filing charges. She eventually received a settlement of $17,500 from the university.
The case has long been public knowledge, and the website Deadline Hollywood reports that Parker is not shying away from his past, but also said, “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope.”
Sadly, the young woman committed suicide in 2012. Jane Doe was found unresponsive by staff at the drug rehabilitation facility where she was staying, next to two 100-count pill bottles of Benadryl-type medication, Variety reported. Jane Doe died at the age of 30.
There is no proof that Jane Doe took her life because of the events that took place at Penn State, although her brother Johnny told Variety, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point.” Johnny asked that his last name not be published to protect the identity of his deceased sister.
“She was trying to find happiness. She moved around frequently and tried to hold a job. She had a boyfriend. She gave birth to a young boy. That brought her a good bit of happiness,” he said. “I think the ghosts continued to haunt her.”
Parker posted a statement on his Facebook page last week upon learning that his accuser had committed suicide in 2012. In the post, the 36-year-old actor and director once again reiterated his innocence, but acknowledged that his actions did not live up to the moral standards he has since set for himself.
Apparently Fox Searchlight is standing behind Parker and is trying to put a ‘spin’ on the issue by openly discussing it and not trying to sweep it under the rug. One writer calls it an attempt to deal with the issue before the heat of awards season, and trying to put it behind them before Parker takes his movie to the Toronto International Film Festival next month, meets the press and then wades into the long slog of awards season.
No doubt this is a “hot-button” topic. It will be interesting to see how quickly the ‘spin-doctors’ can make it disappear, resulting in little or no effect on Parker’s blossoming film career.
“The Birth of a Nation” is scheduled to premiere Oct. 7 in theaters.