Nate Parker was the toast of the Sundance Film Festival with his breakout movie “The Birth of a Nation” last January. The movie won the Grand Jury and Audience Award prizes, Parker was dubbed a hero, the movie set a record at auction when Fox Searchlight bought it for $17 million.
Most people said, Who’s Nate Parker? I met him in 2007 when he co-starred in Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters.” After that he went on to several other films including the George Lucas project “Red Tails” and Gina Prince-Blythewood’s romantic drama “Beyond the Lights.”
From 2007 through yesterday, almost no one ever mentioned that Parker had been acquitted in a 2001 trial for rape while he was a student at Penn State in 1999. A friend, Jean Celestin (the co-writer of “Birth of a Nation”), was found guilty of one count of sexual assault.
Celestin’s conviction was overturned by an appeals court. Prosecutors couldn’t proceed to a new trial because the victim refused to participate. (Both Parker and Celestin claimed they had consensual sex with the woman. Parker was acquitted because it turned out they had had consensual sex the night before.)
Imagine that– nine years, several movies, and lots of interviews, later, the story is back. The subject came up rarely in all this time, and when it did, Parker addressed it and moved on. Until yesterday I’d never heard of it, and no one had mentioned it.
Then yesterday, first came a piece on Deadline.com that included graphic court testimony about the trial, which also involved Parker’s friend and “Birth of a Nation” co-writer Jean Celestin. A couple of hours later, Variety filed its own story, in which reporter Ramin Setoodeh revealed he’d interviewed Parker first, only to be undercut by Deadline. The two publications are owned by Penske Media.
Somebody really wanted Nate Parker’s history to come to light. Why? We are two weeks from the commencement of Oscar season, and “Birth of a Nation” is considered a de facto nominee, a leader in the race to the gold. Undercutting it now, and making the rape story one that sticks, could clear the field for any number of contenders.
Oscar season 2017 has begun with dirty campaigning and we haven’t even started yet.
I haven’t seen “Birth of a Nation” yet, and I don’t know anything about the case in 1999. I can’t comment on either. But I do know this: Parker was acquitted. And 17 years later, we are judging his film, not what happened to him in college. When I met him in 2007, he was one of the nicest young people ever, and he’s grown into a husband and father. It would be reckless of everyone to let this episode stand against “Birth of A Nation” or give anyone a reason not to see it and judge it independently.
But I’m too cynical to think this forest fire started on its own. Two publications (forget about their intra-company squabble) going after Parker in one day? Someone lit that match, you better believe it.