Why the Debate Over Nate Parker Is So Complex

The discussion over how to parse the filmmaker in light of a sexual-assault trial 17 years ago is particularly difficult for black women.

Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King in 'The Birth of a Nation' (Fox Searchlight)

At first, it seemed as though Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation couldn’t have come at a better time. In the wake of #OscarsSoWhite activism and the rapid expansion of the Black Lives Matter movement, a film about Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion that examined the history and power of black liberation seemed to be just the story America needed to see. When Fox Searchlight purchased the global rights to the movie at the Sundance Film Festival for $17.5 million—a new record for the event—Parker’s ascendancy seemed unstoppable. Excitement rose among black filmgoers for the film’s October release, while Parker seemed like a significant new presence in both the film and activism worlds. Unfortunately, the promise of both him and his movie appears now to be too good to be true.

Over the past few weeks, debate has swirled around the fact that Parker was accused of raping a female student in 1999 along with his writing partner on The Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, while all three were enrolled at Penn State. The victim also stated that both Parker and Celestin continually harassed her after she reported the crime. In 2001, Parker was acquitted on the grounds that he and the woman had had sexual relations before the alleged rape. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but he appealed, and the case was dismissed in 2005. This week, Variety reported that the woman involved killed herself in 2012, at the age of 30.

Within the black community, these revelations have provoked sharp debate and sour feelings. Parker’s movie concerns itself with black liberation, but the question of who gets to be the herald of this mobilization has long been a contested issue. In this sense, Parker’s personal life is inextricable from the message of The Birth of a Nation: Nat Turner is a symbol of liberation through rebellion and Nate Parker has chosen himself to be the vessel through which to tell this story. But the revelations around his personal history illuminate the extent to which this liberation isn’t and hasn’t been equal for black men and women. Parker’s history of Nat Turner revolves around a particularly powerful presentation of black masculinity—one that reflects how the subject of liberation so often puts black women in a difficult bind.

While Parker was found innocent in a court of law, for many, the details surrounding the case are too disturbing to ignore. According to Sue Frietsche of the Women’s Law Project, an organization that sought to sue Penn State for its handling of the case in 2002, Parker and Celestin not only publicly identified the female student who accused them of rape, but also harassed and stalked her, without any serious repercussions from the university. According to a recent BuzzFeed report, the scandal divided the campus over issues of race and gender. Some believed the university didn’t do enough to protect the alleged victim. Some believed that Parker and Celestin were being protected because of their role in the school’s athletics program (both had wrestling scholarships, which they kept while they were suspended and awaiting trial). Others believed that Parker and Celestin were being treated unfairly in being accused of raping a white female student. It’s the last of these suspicions that is the most complex, and that continues to pit some black men and women against each other while discussion of Parker’s career and The Birth of a Nation continues.

One theory, as proffered recently by the radio presenter and TV personality Charlamagne Tha God, is that this unpicking of Parker’s history is nothing but a conspiracy to derail a star on the rise. His skepticism is fueled by history—for centuries in the U.S., black men have been lynched because of rape allegations made by white women. According to news reports collected by BuzzFeed, the jury at Parker and Celestin’s trial was entirely white with the exception of a single woman of color, leading many, such as Assata Richards, a graduate student and member of Penn State’s Black Caucus at the time, to believe that the system was unfairly stacked against them. Many black Penn State students expressed concern that Parker and Celestin didn’t have a shot at a fair trial.

Throughout American history, the supposed hypermasculinity and sexual appetites of black men have been stereotyped and fearmongered as a threat to innocent white women. Awareness of this is presumably what compels black men to believe, and therefore protect, other black men at any cost. As Bill Cosby has been accused of rape by an ever-increasing number of women, many high-profile black actors including Eddie Griffin and Damon Wayans have discredited the victims, and dismissed their stories as malicious attempts to slander Cosby’s illustrious legacy. This kind of response often makes black women believe that they have to choose between their blackness or their womanhood when they’re partaking in these conversations.

In The Birth of a Nation, Cherry, Turner’s wife (played by Aja Naomi King), is brutally raped by a group of white men. The message is clear: subjugation of black female bodies has long been perpetuated through sexual violence. But this message becomes muddled when we consider the accusations of sexual violence against the film’s creator and how this thing we call liberation may not be equal across gender lines. How can we watch this scene knowing what we know now about Parker? Can we only discuss rape when the attacker is a white man, as if black men are exempt from benefitting from a patriarchal society? This conundrum is tremendously difficult for black women like myself, who want to make black men aware of our struggles but not feel as if we’re tearing them down.

Both the case of Nate Parker and the current commentary surrounding his life and work reveal how patriarchy is as much an intraracial issue as it is a problem outside of the black community. The push to protect Nate Parker is based on the fact that he’s trying to uplift black people through The Birth of a Nation, but what if that comes at the expense of black women? In Parker’s movie, Nat Turner’s masculinity is a key element of his revolutionary power—an inspirational quality. But for women that same quality, in light of Parker's history, is dangerous. Those prioritizing the significance of the movie over its creator’s history exemplify how often black women’s experiences are pushed aside, and to what extent discussions of black leadership and black liberation are filtered through a male lens, both in real life and on screen.

What will become of The Birth of a Nation has yet to be seen, but it’s fair to assume the backlash will be considerable. Before this week, Parker was set to tour college campuses and churches around the country to promote the movie, all of which is complicated now by the debate over his personal history. In October, filmgoers will have to decide for themselves whether the importance of the movie’s achievements in telling Nat Turner’s story supersedes the scandal surrounding its creator. But for black women, this decision is an impossibly complex one. There can be no true black liberation without acknowledgment of how black women’s issues are often pushed to the side to facilitate black men’s protection. Because this pattern persists, there needs to be a upheaval of another kind within our community—one that is not rebellion, but a shift in discourse, and in how we view each other’s unique struggles.