It was during the early hours of Aug. 21, 1999 that a woman, reported as Jane Doe, was raped while unconscious by two student athletes at Pennsylvania State University. After a night out drinking, Doe’s date led her back to his room. She then woke up to her date and his roommate raping her. Her date’s name is Nate Parker.
When Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation, premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the credits rolled on screen to great praise. Fox Searchlight Pictures soon bought the rights for the film for $17.5 million, a record for the festival.
The movie tells the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion during the 19th century. Turner was an enslaved Baptist preacher on a Virginia plantation, and after witnessing the horrific treatment of his peers, decided that he could no longer be a bystander. His actions prompted one of the largest slave rebellions in Southampton County—one that was both violent and historic.
The premise of the movie and the significance of the story regarding black history drew a large amount of excitement over its reprisal on the big screen. Parker is the writer, director, producer and actor who portrays main character Turner. Coming so soon after the #OscarsSoWhite trend on Twitter and criticism over a whitewashed Hollywood landscape, Parker’s prominent role in the production of the movie generated praise and excitement in the black community and throughout the country.
Then the Penn State rape case was brought back to light, complicating matters. After Doe reported the rape to the university, a lengthy legal process ensued. At first convicted, Parker was later acquitted. His roommate Jean Celestin was also convicted, but his charges were also overturned. In November of 1999, Doe attempted to commit suicide. Years later in 2012, she was successful.
In a statement regarding the suicide, Parker insisted the sexual encounter in question was consensual. The victim was intoxicated and unconscious, however, resulting in the absence of consent. The acquittal of rape charges does not make Parker innocent, especially as earlier evidence from the court case proved that the victim was indeed raped. Parker’s acquittal only perpetuates a cycle of aggression and male privilege, and serves to undermine the worth of women.
The return of Parker’s rape allegations to the spotlight has caused many to question the morality of seeing a movie whose creator is a rapist. Interestingly enough, The Birth of a Nation features a character who is a victim of rape, played by actress Gabrielle Union—a rape victim herself. In an open letter, she tells the world, “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. It’s very possible [Parker] thought he [got consent]. Yet by his own admission, he did not have verbal affirmation.”
While The Birth of a Nation highlights the always-important issue of racism, the film essentially supports one marginalized group at the expense of another. Rape victims need a voice, and it’s hypocritical to support a movie that gives a voice to one group of oppressed people while its main beneficiary, Parker, silenced a woman who fell victim to a culture that oppressed and faulted her.
Many people stand by the movie because it deals with such a worthy cause. But there are many other black filmmakers and creators who address important issues as well. Take, for example, Ava DuVernay, writer and director of the film Selma, or Barry Jenkins, writer and director of Medicine for Melancholy.
It is imperative to understand the importance of deconstructing rape culture in our society. Like the spirit of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, it is never OK to be a bystander to the suffering of others.