The director was found not guilty in court in 2001, but news of his past has dogged the release of the Oscar favoruite
While speaking to American journalist Anderson Cooper last night, writer and director Nate Parker, whose press tour for The Birth of a Nation has been derailed by revelations of his acquittal at a rape trial, offered no apologies over the 16-year-old events that took place while he was a university student. Instead, a solemn Parker said that audience members turning away from the once Oscar-buzzing film should consider its historical importance, describing it as a story that deserves to be seen.
In an interview on 60 Minutes, Parker did not say sorry for his actions that saw both him and his college roommate Jean Celestin on trial for sexually assaulting a college freshman in Penn State University in 1999; in the 2001 trial, Parker was found not guilty, but Celestin’s conviction would stand until it was overturned on appeal when their accuser said she was unwilling to testify again.
When the news of Parker’s past broke during the summer, it was later revealed by his accuser’s brother that she subsequently dropped out of college, became dependent on drugs, and died by suicide.
“I don’t feel guilty,” Parker said when asked about the events that led up to his criminal trial.
“But, you know, at some point I have to say it,” he added, “I was falsely accused. I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated – I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is... no.”
Parker also discussed criticism for his professional collaboration with Jean Celestin, who is credited as a co-writer on The Birth of a Nation, which made international headlines when it sold at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for $17.5m (€15.6m).
“The reality is that Jean went to jail for something he did not do,” Parker said.
The Birth of a Nation tells the true story of Nat Turner, an enslaved Baptist preacher living on a cotton plantation in Virginia. In 1831, Turner led a revolt by a group of African-American slaves that left 55 white people dead, including women and children. Retaliating white militias killed more than 200 black slaves in revenge when attempting to quash the rebels.
Speaking to Cooper, Parker said that he hopes that the unflinching nature of The Birth of a Nation will inspire viewers to understand that “resistance is an option” in the face of adversity and racism, adding that he hopes the film encourages “a riotous disposition to injustice.” Instead of taking up tools as weapons like Nat Turner and his followers did, Parker pushed people to engage in nonviolent protest, using social media to spread their message.
Towards the end of their interview, Cooper asked Parker what he thought of the people who have now chosen to not see The Birth of a Nation because of the allegations against him. “I do feel that’s unfortunate,” Parker said, adding that Nat Turner’s story and significance to the course of American history is “bigger than me. I think it’s bigger than all of us.”