In January, The Birth of a Nation, a drama about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion, became one of the most buzzed-about movies to debut at the Sundance Film Festival. The audience’s emotional response and Fox Searchlight’s record-breaking acquisition deal have made it one of the most highly anticipated awards-season releases, with many in the industry pointing to writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker as one of the year’s biggest breakout stories.
But the resurfacing of a rape trial from Parker’s past has complicated the story behind the film, which is slated for theatrical release on Oct. 7. In an interview with Variety last week, Parker was asked to address the trial, which took place in 2001. In 1999, Parker and his roommate at Penn State University, Jean Celestin, who is a co-writer of The Birth of a Nation, were charged with raping an 18-year-old student after a night of drinking in their apartment. The student alleged that she was unconscious when the incident took place, while Parker and Celestin maintained that the encounter had been consensual. The men were suspended from the school’s wrestling team and Parker ultimately transferred to a different college.
At the trial, Parker was acquitted of the charges after a defense that emphasized a previous, consensual encounter between Parker and the victim. Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison. He later appealed the verdict and the conviction was overturned, though the case never returned to court because the victim declined to testify. She dropped out of Penn State and received a $17,500 settlement from the school in a separate legal action. The woman reportedly tried to kill herself at least twice immediately following the trial, and later alleged that Parker and Celestin had harassed her following the reported assault.
When prompted by Variety to reflect on the allegations, Parker addressed the incident openly. “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” he said. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
On August 12, Celestin emailed the following statement to Deadline Hollywood:
This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of. I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career. I have several exciting book and film projects that I am working on and that I am looking forward to.
On August 16, the victim’s brother, who gave only his first name, Johnny, in order to preserve his sister’s anonymity, told Variety that his sister took her own life in 2012 at the age of 30. The woman overdosed on sleeping pills at a drug rehab facility. Her death certificate stated that she struggled with “PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.”
Following Variety’s reporting on the victim’s brother’s statement, Parker spoke out again, this time on his Facebook page, expressing his distress at the news of her death. “I cannot- nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial,” 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 Birth of a Nation brings to the fore a critical chapter in American history, at a moment when the nation’s legacy of institutional racism is under frequent examination. Though it’s hard to imagine Parker welcomes renewed discussion of his past, he says he does not assume that his brief remarks now will be the final words in this conversation. “I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will,” he continued on Facebook. “Please don’t take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement. I urge you only to take accept [sic] this letter as my response to the moment.”