When it comes to sexual assault, legal vindication isn’t the same thing as moral vindication. Being cleared of wrongdoing by the judicial system—which time and time again has been proven to reliably and systemically fail the victims of sexual violence—is an achievement that comes with a fairly low bar.
With this in mind, the current rehashing of a 17-year-old case, in which an 18-year-old woman accused the filmmaker Nate Parker and his college roommate-turned-writing-partner Jean Celestin of raping her while all three were students at Penn State, is not only appropriate, but necessary.
Parker, directed, produced, and stars in the upcoming film The Birth of a Nation, a drama about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The film is not only Parker’s directorial debut, but also his most critically acclaimed work to date, and earlier this year the movie became the most expensive film ever purchased at Sundance after Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for it.
Court records show that in 1999, Parker and Celestin were accused of having sex with the woman while she was intoxicated and unconscious, and then harassing and intimidating her after she reported them to the college.
Parker has never tried to cover up the accusation; it’s long been listed on his Wikipedia page. But it’s only now, as his movie heads toward an October release amid considerable awards-season buzz, that the case is fully being excavated. Although Parker was cleared of assault in a court of law, the case endured after 2001, when he was acquitted and Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault; and after 2005, when Celestin won his appeal because the victim couldn’t bring herself to testify again. It endured through 2012, when—as both the public and Parker found out this week—the woman killed herself, and it endures now because of Parker and Celestin’s movie being widely heralded as a groundbreaking work of historical and racial significance.