Early Oscar favourite 'Birth of a Nation' mired in controversy after rape charges revealed

Interviews and screenings of the film have been cancelled after it emerged director Nate Parker was acquitted of sexual assault in 2001

Early Oscar favourite 'Birth of a Nation' mired in controversy after rape charges revealed

Writer, director and actor Nate Parker, whose past is clouding the future of 'The Birth of a Nation' [Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP]

At January’s Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation emerged not only a critical darling and awards-season hit in the making, but a lucrative deal as well. The film, directed by Nate Parker, tells the true story of Nat Turner’s 19th-century rebellion of African American slaves in Virginia. By the end of Sundance, the film had bagged an unprecedented $17.5m distribution deal with Fox Searchlight Pictures, with the promise of an Oscar-friendly push and release. But now a sexual assault trial has changed the course of the film’s expected path to glory, with Nate Parker at the centre of the controversy.

Everything had been going well, with Parker doing the rounds on the promotional circuit. As more press begat more press, the media turned its focus from his feature film directorial debut to his past. In doing so, Parker’s days as a student at Penn State University, when he and his friend Jean Celestin – a co-writer on The Birth of a Nation – were both charged with raping a fellow student.

According to The Atlantic’s report, court records reveal that Parker and Celestin were arrested for having sex with the woman while she was passed out after drinking too much. The pair then harassed and intimidated the victim when she reported the assault to the university’s administration.

Parker was ultimately cleared of the rape charges in court in 2001 because the jury was informed that he and the woman had had consensual sex before the assault, although Celestin was found guilty. Four years later, Celestin won his appeal against the conviction when the woman “couldn’t bring herself to testify again.”

She left Penn State University, which offered her a settlement of $17,500. The woman would go on to die by suicide in 2012, after developing a drug habit. Her death certificate, as reported by Variety, revealed that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, [and] polysubstance abuse.”

It is understood that neither Parker nor Celestin was aware that their accuser had taken her own life until it was reported in the news, but even before that story broke, Parker was already in hot water for his seemingly tone-deaf response to questions about the 2001 trial.

“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that,” he said.

After the woman’s death was made public, Parker again attempted to respond, offering more empathy to her and her family. But it has vastly changed the buzz surrounding Birth of a Nation, which has seen screenings cancelled and come under considerable criticism from Oscar voters. Marcia Nasatir, an Academy member in the executives branch, told The Hollywood Reporter that she would not be voting for the film in light of the rape trial.

“Personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in it. Do I want to see a movie from someone who has committed an assault against a woman and who I do not think recognises his guilt? Right now, based on what I’ve read, I would not go to the movie,” Nasatir said.

Fox Searchlight is now in the difficult situation whereby it has paid millions to distribute a film that had previously been considered a worthy and important picture telling the history of human bondage in the United States. Parker has proven to be enthusiastic to continue the press tour for the film, despite a number of high-profile cancellations – including a screening at the American Film Institute. The 33-year-old director, scheduled to face the press at the Toronto Film Festival, will now not appear.

Parker’s acquittal in the case has undoubtedly been overshadowed by a retrial in the media spotlight, not helped by the fact The Birth of a Nation also includes a graphic rape scene. The film and its maker’s past raise questions like those fired at the likes of Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, further complicating the ethics of consuming entertainment when the artist has been accused of crimes of a terrible nature.

If you have been affected by any of the issues mentioned in this story, please consider contacting Rape Crisis Help on 1800 77 88 88.

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