There is not another living organism in this galaxy who wanted Nate Parker to win more than me. When I first learned that Nate Parker had written, produced, directed and was going to star as Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that chronicles the story of Nat Turner, a fearless Virginia slave who led a bloody rebellion in 1831, I was excited.
I was excited to see another black man win. I was excited because the narrative of Nat Turner is so essential at this day and age. I was excited to see a film that depicts black folks taking ownership of their liberation without the guidance of a white savior. (Although the argument could be made that Nat was a prophet who received his direction from God ― who, at the very least, was white Jesus.)
I was excited because this year has been fucking exhausting and I’ve struggled to maintain my black joy. I was even more excited when I learned that “The Birth of a Nation” won the highest honors at The Sundance Film Festival and Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased the worldwide rights to the film for a record $17.5 million. This acquisition was the most lucrative deal in Sundance history.
I was proud of Nate. So proud that when I read a story that rehashed the rape trial of Nate Parker and his then roommate (and “The Birth Of A Nation” co-writer) Jean Celestin, I subconsciously ignored it. I rationalized my willful ignorance by chalking this up to being the work of some low-level journalist trying to make a name for themselves. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
When the stories ceased to stop, my immediate instinct was to protect Nate ― partly because I know that black bodies are not only crucified in the streets by men who wear blue uniforms and have black hearts. Western journalism has slain black lives and legacies, too. I know even the simplest of deviations can trigger a slew of op-ed pieces and unjust cover stories. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
I rationalized my willful ignorance by chalking this up to being the work of some low-level journalist trying to make a name for themselves. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
I wanted his accuser to be just another white woman who was falsely accusing yet another black man of an egregious act. I used my own internalized knowledge of injustice to fuel my skepticism. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
I wanted her to be a liar who was not unconscious due to excess alcohol consumption. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
I wanted to believe that their sexual encounter was 100 percent consensual and the accuser was seeking retaliation because of campus embarrassment. I wanted Nate to be the victim.
I wanted to believe that the criminal justice system finally got it right. I wanted to believe that Jean Celestin’s overturned guilty verdict and Nate’s not guilty verdict was some form of justice. I wanted Nate to be the victim. I wanted to assuage my cognitive dissonance. I wanted Nate win.
I began to do more research and stumbled across the court transcripts and trial timelines. I examined the trial and discovered that Parker and Celestin were not only accused of rape, but intimidation and harassment of the accuser after she reported the incident to Penn State as well.
Another troubling finding was Nate’s pathway to legal innocence. The defense argued that Nate’s previous consensual sexual encounters was proof that Nate did not rape her. The problem with that argument is that it suggests that since Nate received the accuser’s consent in the past, he was given consent for every encounter thereafter. That is a very dangerous narrative ― a literal threat to immediate health and safety of women.
The accuser’s promiscuity and attire were also questioned by the defense. The overtones of rape culture were undeniable. Parker was ultimately acquitted of all charges in 2001. His roommate, Jean Celestin, was not so lucky. He was found guilty of rape and sentenced to prison, which was odd seeing that both Parker and Celestin both engaged with the accuser at the same time. You can read the trial timeline in its entirety to make your own assessment.
As if I wasn’t conflicted enough, I watched several Nate Parker interviews for his “The Birth of a Nation” promo tour. I expected questions surrounding the case would be asked. I was expecting Nate to be poised, forthcoming and empathetic to the situation. There were times when he was just that, and other times where he became irate, dismissive, nonchalant and gave half-answers when pressed. I no longer wanted Nate to win. I wanted Nate to shut up.
In a perfect world, I expected Nate to take a sense of ownership and use this as an opportunity to say maybe at 19 he didn’t have a clear understanding of what sexual consent was. Instead, he’s been doubling down in his fuckboyism, which, as you can imagine, has quite a few people scratching their heads ― myself included. After examining the case, Nate’s temperament, and his pathway to legal innocence, I can’t say I’m convinced that Nate is not a rapist.
I realized that my immediate instinct to “preserve blackness” was not only emotionally exhausting, it was also problematic as fuck.
I had to examine myself. I had to ask myself why I felt the primitive need to protect Nate and his past transgressions. Why was I so emotionally invested? Is “The Birth of a Nation” really that important? I realized that my immediate instinct to “preserve blackness” was not only emotionally exhausting, it was also problematic as fuck.
I’m confident that I am not the only one that felt this way. For others, this is just water under the bridge. Many will continue to support Nate unapologetically as if it were some form of unwavering allegiance to blackness. That is a luxury I cannot afford.
I believe, at 19, Nate did not have a clear and concise definition of what consent was (that doesn’t excuse his actions). I believe, at 36, Nate still does not have a clear and concise definition of what consent is. I believe his previous sexual encounters with the accuser gave him a sense of entitlement. I honestly believe that Nate Parker does not see himself as a rapist. And I honestly believe that it is more than likely that Nate Parker did not get consent from the accuser, nor did Jean Celestin. I believe that is rape.
I believe the story of Nat Turner lives with or without Nate Parker. The story of Nate Parker is complex and conflicted. I no longer want Nate to win. I want Nate to take ownership.
There’s a part of me that wishes this was a conspiracy of epic proportion to bring down another black man. I wish Nate would have “tried to buy NBC.” (Tread lightly, Cosby conspiracy theorists.)
Maybe then this would all make sense. But he didn’t and this doesn’t.
Yesterday, I posed the question on my Facebook page: “Can you separate the art from the artist? If so, where do we draw the line?” That is a question we will have to continue to ask ourselves.
This post originally appeared on Terrance’s personal blog on Medium.
Need help? Visit RAINN’s National Sexual Assault Online Hotline or the National Sexual Violence Resource Center’s website.