The black director, star, and co-writer of Birth of a Nation, a film that generated a terrific amount of buzz at Sundance 2016, where it sold for a record-breaking $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, and was set to make big waves at next year's Oscars, was charged in 1999 with raping an 18-year-old woman.
Parker, who was attending Penn State at the time, claimed that he did not rape her, that the sex was consensual. She claimed she was unconscious when Parker and another man, Jean Celestin (the co-writer of The Birth of a Nation), had sex with her. Parker was acquitted in 2001, but Celestin did serve time in prison for sexual assault, though his conviction was overturned on appeal in 2005.
On Tuesday, Variety revealed that the woman committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 30. Though there's no evidence that the suicide was directly tied to the incident, the brother of the dead woman told Variety that "the ghosts continued to haunt” his sister. The brother also believes that if the trial were held today, the verdict would have been different. We live in a society that's becoming more aware of the prevalence of rape culture.
Yesterday, the New York Times revealed the victim was white. This fact will, of course, catch the attention of those familiar with the pro-Clansman film whose title the black filmmakers appropriated. In the original, a black man (played by a white man in blackface) rapes a white woman. In the Parker's film, a black woman is raped by white men.
Upon learning of the woman's death, Parker posted on Facebook that he was "devastated” and “filled with profound sorrow” and that he "may not have shown enough empathy" as he "fought to clear [his] name” from the rape charge.
So, where does all of this place his movie? In a very bad place. Though its director was cleared of the charge of rape, the incident is far from over. It is and will always be a part of his life. This, I think, Parker and Celestin, failed to understand and appreciate. Because if they did, there's no way they would have made The Birth of a Nation. They would have reflected on the bad thing that really did happen in the past, looked at the story they were developing, and seen clearly it was not going to work. And fact they went ahead with it only shows how men often fail to grasp the seriousness of this kind of crime. No matter what the ruling was in this case, the woman stated the sex was not consensual. We need to always keep that in mind.
My recommendation is that the studio pull the plug on Parker's film for the sake of the dead woman's family. They have suffered enough, and one of its creators was actually charged with sexual assault. And this person is evidently still close with Parker. All of this is just too fucked up. The studio should absorb its losses and look elsewhere for young and talented black filmmakers.
This post has been updated to reflect that Jean Celestin's sexual assault conviction was overturned.