Nate Parker and the Court of Public Opinion

The up-and-coming filmmaker is under intense scrutiny for rape charges leveled against him 17 years ago. Here’s why this debate is necessary.

Willy Sanjuan / AP

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.

This extremely difficult and complex spectacle reflects a society that has, for generations, made the experience of reporting sexual assault a harrowing one that requires a victim to do unspeakably difficult things. Like taking their battered bodies to a hospital where they can be poked and prodded in the precise areas where they were violated, in hope of producing physical evidence. Like going to the police, where they must relive not only the horror of their attack, but also defend themselves—their intellect, their honesty, their drinking habits, and their sexual history—while hoping for a sympathetic ear. Like retelling their story in front of loved ones and strangers, while enduring weeks (if not months) of inquiries about who they are, what they’ve done, and why they’ve come forward.

It helps, of course, if someone else has witnessed what is likely the worst moment of a victim’s life—and if they too, are willing to speak about it. But even if a victim can manage all that, the likelihood that an attacker finds himself behind bars is slim. There’s debate over the statistics, but fewer than 40 percent of rape cases that are reported wind up being prosecuted, and of those, less than half result in a guilty plea. It’s also true that many victims don’t report sexual assault at all.

Parker, in his own words, has acknowledged that the failure of a court to convict him of legal wrongdoing doesn’t mean that he didn’t do anything wrong. In a post on Facebook this week, he wrote, “While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

The reaction of those who’ve jumped to the defense of Parker and the art he has created is understandable but ultimately ill-conceived. Both The Birth of a Nation and Parker seem to represent a new wave of possibilities for black men in Hollywood that includes the ability to not only create and star in blockbusters, but to do so in works that are based on the long-avoided racial history of the U.S. Many people seem to fear that tarnishing the aura of the movie’s star will dash those possibilities. There are also people who contest that black men, like Parker, have systemically had their rights violated by the judicial system and deserve continued support. They aren’t wrong, but in this case, pitting the plight of different victims against one another is reductive. The protection of one vulnerable group of people shouldn’t come at the cost of another.

The movie Parker has been promoting is one that is of enormous importance to so many people, particularly black audiences. But at the center of that story is a story of rape. In The Birth of a Nation, Parker illustrates the breadth of physical and psychological atrocities committed against slaves. The rape of Nat Turner’s wife represents one of the most brutally significant and catalyzing moments for his character. So it’s hard to rally around a movie by a man that depicts the plights of largely fictionalized characters without also being willing to ask difficult questions about what happened 17 years ago to a real woman.

In fiction, there are “acceptable” rape victims. They are usually married, or chaste, and always “blameless.” In reality, women are human. Time and again, cultural norms have decided that this makes women less worthy of sympathy and trust. It sends the message that if you dress a certain way, or drink, or engage in sexual activity with someone prior to an assault, you are somehow more worthy of violence, doubt, and shame.

This country’s history of turning a blind eye to men who commit egregious acts is a long and horrific one, especially men who are deemed to be special or exceptional. In the entertainment industry, in athletics, in politics, and really in society at large, Americans seem to decide that the merit of a man lies less in his moral character than in his contributions to the country. This is the impulse that leads many to want to leave Parker’s history unexamined. But throughout the last century, doing exactly that has at the very least allowed for the willful obfuscation of very real horrors. And in far too many situations, it’s enabled and encouraged years of unchecked sexual violence. Parker’s talents may be extraordinary, and the story he is telling is a crucial one—particularly at this moment of racial reckoning. But the importance of works like this one, and the respect and admiration they afford individuals like Parker who break through longstanding barriers, make such scrutiny vital.