Nate Parker's Penn State: Campus sexual assault issues at the center of "The Birth of a Nation" controversy

The story around Parker's '01 rape acquittal highlights problems with how universities deal with sexual assault

Published August 24, 2016 11:59AM (EDT)

Nate Parker   (AP/Chris Pizzello)
Nate Parker (AP/Chris Pizzello)

“The Birth of a Nation” is a story that cried out to be told. Nate Parker’s film on the historic Nat Turner slave rebellion sold at Sundance in January for a record $17.5 million, and then the Oscar buzz began. Given the #OscarSoWhite controversy of the last two years, it has been suggested that “The Birth of a Nation” would be part of Hollywood’s much-needed racial redemption. Nate Parker, the film’s star, director and co-writer, has become a talisman for this new hope of a more radical, inclusive film industry. But it wasn’t long before the conversation quickly shifted from the racial dialogue Parker and Fox Searchlight sought to Parker’s 1999 arrest and trial for rape.

As a 19-year-old underclassman at Penn State, Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin, who also has a writing credit in “The Birth of a Nation,” were charged in the rape of an unconscious 18-year-old fellow student. In the days since the story began receiving renewed attention, eyewitness testimony has been widely scrutinized, as well as the prosecutors’ closing statements and those of the defense attorneys from the 2001 trial. Celestin was convicted, but he won an appeal, and his verdict was overturned after the young woman refused to testify in the retrial. Parker, meanwhile, was acquitted of all charges.

The trial reportedly took a heavy toll on the victim. In the wake of her charges against Parker and Celestin, the victim claimed that both men regularly stationed themselves outside of her dorm. Despite the seriousness of the charges against Parker and Celestin at the time, Penn State did not place any limitations to their movements on campus. The woman said she was subject to harassment by friends of Parker and Celestin. To stop abusive phone calls, she had her name, address and phone number removed from the campus directory, only to have it all re-printed in the next edition. After Celestin was found guilty, Penn State refused to deny him freedom of movement on campus, deciding instead to wait until his sentencing. She ended up leaving school.

The female student filed a complaint with the United States Court for the Middle District of Pennsylvania against the university, alleging that Penn State displayed “deliberate indifference to known, severe, and pervasive sexual harassment that effectively denied” her access to an equal education under Title IX. Penn State settled out of court for $17,500, and the university promised to review their sexual harassment policies.

In April of 2004, the review panel made a number of recommendations to Penn State, including:

  • Prohibiting retaliation against anyone who files a complaint involving sexual harassment
  • Making changes to the website to allow for greater transmission of Penn State’s expectations regarding sexual assault and sexual harassment
  • Allowing a student faced with a traumatic sexual assault to take a leave absence for a semester or more to process what happened, with the end goal of having said student return to campus and graduate.
  • That Penn State consider a mandatory policy which would force the accused to withdraw while felony charges are pending.

The Women's Law Project of Philadelphia (WLP), which filed suit on the victim’s behalf, supported the panel’s recommendations. In response, university spokesman Bill Mahon dismissed the report, and according to the Penn State Daily Collegian, advised students "not to listen to the 'silly press releases' made by WLP. Mahon added, “It was a very shoddy report. It's one of the poorest kind of reports I've seen from my years working at Penn State.”

In light of the new attention to this case, the Women’s Law Project, through executive director Carol E. Tracy and managing attorney Terry L. Fromson, released a statement in which they assert that sex crimes laws need to be updated to eliminate the false notion of perpetual consent as it relates to sexual activity. They contend that their client undertook the suit in order to protect “other women from sexual assault and harassment, and to do what she could to ensure justice for rape survivors”. Neither Tracy nor Fromson believe that this goal has been achieved within the university or justice system. Despite the seriousness of sexual assault, expulsion, the strongest penalty a school can issue, was only utilized 12 percent of the time, according to a Washington Post report on a Justice Department survey of 100 schools in 2012-2013.

Female college students currently make up a vocal sector of the activism surrounding sexual assault and consent issues. This is fitting, since according to RAINN, 11.2 percent of college students experience rape or sexual assault. So it’s particularly significant that part of Parker’s deal with Fox Searchlight includes taking “The Birth of a Nation” promotional tour to campuses, ostensibly to discuss America’s history with race and racism. Of course, gender cannot be divorced from a conversation about race because of the specific oppressions facing Black women, both historically and currently. But although “The Birth of a Nation” portrays the graphic rape of Turner’s wife, which spurs the rebellion, it seems as though Parker would much rather have the conversation revolve solely about America’s original sin — slavery. With the story of his trial now dominating discussion of his film and the Oscar campaign, he has the opportunity to foster serious conversations, especially on the college tour, about sexual violence and its aftermath.

Today, we use the word “survivor” rather than “victim” to talk about those who have been raped or sexually assaulted, to highlight the strength it takes to continue forward after such a violation. But some women never recover. Some turn to drugs to dull the pain and the memories. Some engage in self-harm, while others develop agoraphobia and social anxiety. And some will sleep with the lights on every night while wearing running shoes in case they need to escape. When a victim survives, it doesn’t mean irreparable harm hasn’t been done.

Parker and Celestin have been able to move forward largely unhindered by the events of that day in 1999, whereas their alleged victim was not so lucky — she reportedly committed suicide in 2012 at age 30. In an interview with Variety, Johnny, the woman’s brother, said, “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point.”

In Parker’s Deadline interview, he used his wife, five daughters, four sisters, mother and religion as a defensive maneuver against accountability, and continually asserted his innocence when discussing “that situation.” In the 15 years following his trial, Parker has built a family and a thriving career. In the same span of time, the woman who said he assaulted her became a mother and battled drug addiction. According to RAINN, victims of sexual assault are 3.4 times more likely to use marijuana, 6 times more likely to use cocaine, and 10 times more likely to use other major drugs. Thirteen percent of women who are raped attempt suicide. After two failed attempts, this woman succeeded in ending her life. Parker referred to the sexual assault trial as a painful time in his life, yet it’s clear that she was the one who felt pain so deeply that death appeared to be her only option for escape.

At the time of the trial, there was some question as to whether or not Parker and Celestin, both Black men, would be treated fairly, because they were accused of raping a white woman. And now the Rev. Al Sharpton has stepped up to defend Parker, questioning the timing of the media discussion of Parker’s rape trial suggesting that the timing is suspicious. In an interview with “The Root,” Sharpton expanded upon his conspiracy theory to suggest that the ongoing conversation about Parker’s involvement in a sexual assault case is about ruining the chances of "The Birth of a Nation" being widely-released in theaters. “The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger,” said Sharpton.

To be sure, there were historical concerns at play — Black men have been lynched for merely whistling at a white woman — but that doesn't magically grant immunity when crimes do occur, nor should it garner the unquestioning support from Black women in the name of uplifting the race. Even in intraracial assaults, Black women have historically been encouraged to remain silent in order to support African-American patriarchy. For too long, Black women have been convinced to remain silent when they are raped, and to support men who have been accused of rape, in order to reject the racist narrative that Black men are sexual predators. Such a strategy fails to take into account how silence harms Black women, and indeed all women, even as it emboldens abusers.

At some point, Black women have to make self-preservation a priority over racial uplift, even if it means divorcing ourselves from someone who claims to have our best interests at heart. We can and should acknowledge the importance of a film like “The Birth of a Nation,” particularly given recent racial upheaval, but not at our own expense. No movie, regardless of the historical importance, outweighs a woman’s right to be free from sexual assault.

Though Parker, unlike Celestin, was never convicted, his case should not be shrugged away as an inappropriate folly or youthful misadventure. That Parker now claims to care deeply for women and for the safety of women is cold comfort, particularly given how fond he is of reminding the public that he is preparing his five daughters for college. It is only in the present that he is acknowledging the importance of protecting women on and off campus.

Wagatwe Sara Wanjuki is the co-founder of Survivors Eradicating Rape Culture. As part of her protest against Tufts University for failing survivors of sexual assault, Wanjuki is burning items from her days as a student, as well as encouraging other survivors of sexual assault to burn items in protest. For Wanjuki, there are lessons to be learned from Parker’s involvement in sexual assault.

“Nate Parker's case is a really great example of what happens when colleges fail to hold assailants accountable. Assailants go out into the world with the implicit condonation of their actions because they get away with it while survivors continue to suffer," said Wanjuki in a Facebook private message. "Penn State's role in this must not be ignored — they had signs that they did not properly handle sexual abuse before the [Jerry] Sandusky coverup came to light. This is what happens when institutions don't care about doing the right thing; they assist in creating a world where rapists and sex abusers thrive.”

In an interview with Deadline, Parker claimed to want women to “stand up, to speak out when they feel violated, in every degree.” Protests like Wanjuki’s, and the current controversy swirling around Parker's past, are what speaking out can look like. Sharon Loeffler, the sister of Parker and Celestin’s accuser, says she believes that there are other victims out there and is encouraging women to come forward. Standing up and speaking out also takes the form of Black women actively calling for a boycott of “The Birth of a Nation,” as they encourage other women to disavow Parker’s positioning of himself as the victim.

Parker would like the world to fixate on the man he is today, however, that man would not exist if the same man who was accused of rape 17 years ago didn’t also exist. His failure to hold himself accountable and his ability to center his pain over that of his late classmate's means that today, the man he claims that we should value and support is still deeply flawed.

There is no doubt that both Parker’s actions in 1999, as well as his various responses to the renewed scrutiny, mark him as a direct product of his environment. Freshman students are introduced to school policies as it relates to sexual assault on campus, but how often does that even begin to start a conversation about consent and power, or the complex historical ramifications of sexual assault allegations when a man of color or a woman of color is involved? In order to be proactive, universities must have this conversation openly to ensure that all students are aware of the consequences of failing to seek consent and where to go if and when they are violated. 

When institutions of higher education fail to hold those accused of sexual assault and or rape accountable, it creates a culture that emboldens egregious behavior. Instead of standing as a point of pride for Penn State, Parker and Celestin embody not only the university’s failure to support a vulnerable young woman who stepped forward to say she had been violated, but the ongoing problem of how sexual assault is mishandled on university campuses.

By Renée Martin

Renée Martin is a writer whose work has appeared in The Establishment, The Guardian (U.K.), Global Comment, Bitch, GOOD, xoJane, Ms. , theGrio, Loop21 and Clutch, as well as in the anthologies "Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Violence" (AK Press) and "Sex Ed and Youth: Colonization, Sexuality, and Communities of Colour" (Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives).

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Movies Nate Parker Penn State Rape Culture Sexual Assault The Birth Of A Nation