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Rape allegations, a breakout star, and the Oscars: how the attempt to smooth Nate Parker's past failed so badly

The Birth of a Nation director is at the center of one of the worst damage control campaigns in Hollywood history.

American Black Film Festival - First Look 'A Birth Of A Nation'
Nate Parker promotes his highly anticipated new film, The Birth of a Nation.
Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images

Hollywood has given us many a master class in warped priorities, but film studio Fox Searchlight might have outdone them all, with one of the worst botched publicity campaigns maybe ever.

As it prepares for the October 7 release of its highly anticipated drama The Birth of a Nation, the studio has attempted to preemptively stave off awards season backlash by addressing writer-director Nate Parker’s tumultuous past head on. But instead of bolstering the film’s Oscar chances, it has created an extraordinarily ugly controversy, and everyone involved is worse off for it.

This isn’t about a parking ticket pileup, or a troubled youth. It’s about Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin being charged with rape 17 years ago, when they were wrestling teammates in college. (Parker was acquitted and Celestin was convicted, before the conviction was eventually overturned on appeal.) And it’s about Hollywood spectators trying to reframe the fallout within the context of how many Oscars it could cost the duo’s movie.

Ever since Deadline published an exclusive interview with Parker on August 12 — under the headline "Fox Searchlight, Nate Parker Confront Old Sex Case That Could Tarnish The Birth Of A Nation" — the situation has only gotten messier and more tragic.

The men’s past rape charges should in no way be discussed in conjunction with how they might affect awards chances; that became all too clear on August 16, when Variety revealed that the woman who accused Parker and Celestin died by suicide in 2012, at 30 years old.

On August 17, Parker bypassed the press and released his own statement. But the damage is likely done — if it wasn’t already, years ago.

Now Parker is at the center of exactly the kind of controversy he and Fox Searchlight were trying to avoid. But given the details of his and Celestin’s 2001 trial, Parker and Fox Searchlight’s terrifically insensitive attempts to weave them into a narrative about a movie’s Oscar chances — not to mention the way our national conversation surrounding rape and sexual assault has changed since Parker was tried — that’s hardly surprising.

Parker and Celestin were tried for sexual assault in 2001 — and the fallout has lingered ever since

As with most sexual assault cases, the details surrounding what happened are conflicting, confusing, and disturbing. But here are some facts, culled from documents and reporting on the October 2001 trial:

  • The 18-year-old woman who accused Parker and Celestin — who requested anonymity, and has been most frequently identified as "Jane Doe" — stated that she and Parker were supposed to go on a date on August 20, 1999. When he was late, she ended up having several drinks with another unidentified man at the bar while she waited for Parker to show up. She said she ended up blackout drunk (in addition to having taken a Prozac, which she said she had been taking since 1997) in Parker's Penn State apartment. She said she fell asleep, only to wake up once to Parker "having intercourse" with her, and then another time to Celestin’s penis in her mouth.
  • Parker and Celestin insisted in statements — they did not testify during the trial —that she wasn’t blackout drunk but rather conscious and therefore aware of giving consent. Both men remain committed to their statements today, 15 years after the original 2001 trial.
  • Jane Doe recorded a phone call with Parker two months after the night in question — without informing him it was being recorded — in which she told him her period was late. "Can you tell me honestly how many people I slept with that night, so I know what I’m looking at here?" she asked. Parker confirmed himself and Celestin, and maintained that he "really didn’t know [she was] all that drunk."
  • Significantly — a word I use because this detail was brought up both during and outside the trial — Jane Doe was white. Both Parker and Celestin specifically discussed her race in their statements: Celestin said that one of their wrestling coaches — Kerry McCoy, whom they’d called for advice after realizing Jane Doe might be accusing them of rape — told him that "being a black athlete, such allegations were not unusual." According to Parker, McCoy said "these things come up with girls who feel guilty about what they did before, or may even find themselves pregnant with a multiracial child and rejected by her parents."
  • Parker was eventually acquitted of all charges, in part thanks to the jury concluding that Jane Doe was not unconscious. His verdict was likely also affected by the fact that Parker and Jane Doe had engaged in a sexual encounter prior to the night of the alleged assault, as detailed in her testimony.
  • Celestin — who did not have a previous relationship with Jane Doe, and who admitted to not wearing a condom when he had sex with her — was convicted for sexual assault. But the conviction was overturned in 2005 when he appealed to the Pennsylvania Superior Court on the grounds that his defense attorney had been inadequate.
  • Jane Doe ended up dropping out of Penn State. According to her brother — who spoke to Variety about her suicide after more news outlets began reporting on the case in light of Fox Searchlight’s preemptive damage control — she was never the same after the trial. Variety reported that her death certificate said she suffered from "major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, [and] polysubstance abuse."

The charges never exactly faded from memory. They’re not only a matter of public record; they’ve also been on Parker’s Wikipedia page for years. And Parker has never shied away from discussing the charges when asked about them. In fact, he’s been far more likely to bring them up himself, the better to get ahead of controversy before it has a chance to surprise him.

Premiere of MGM's 'The Great Debaters' - Afterparty
Denzel Washington and Nate Parker at the premiere of 2007’s The Great Debaters.
Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

For example, in this smaller-scale profile from 2007, the Virginian-Pilot wrote about Parker’s upcoming Denzel Washington–led film The Great Debaters with a section allocated to Parker’s "dark chapter." Parker’s mother was quoted as saying the alleged sexual assault was "one of the most challenging moments of our lives," and that she insisted in the aftermath that he "turn to God" (which, according to the statements Parker has released since then, he did).

"If I had it my way, it would never be brought up again," Parker told the Virginian-Pilot at the time. "It's taken six years of my life to get past it." But he probably knew even then that the case would haunt him forever.

In January 2016, nine years after The Great Debaters was met with a largely positive response, Parker took The Birth of a Nation to Sundance. The film received rave reviews and won the festival’s top award, while also sparking renewed interest in the so-called "dark chapter" of his life.

But the studio that ended up with the movie — Fox Searchlight, which has distributed previous Oscar nominees like Little Miss Sunshine, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and Brooklyn — apparently was not aware of the controversy it might be taking on until it had already paid an unprecedented $17.5 million for the rights to the film.

Fox Searchlight and Parker turned to Deadline, which reframed his past within the context of how it could affect the film’s awards chances. That was a mistake.

According to Variety, Fox Searchlight only learned of the charges lurking in Parker and Celestin’s past after it made its record-shattering Sundance purchase. But again, details of the case are so accessible that they appear on Parker’s Wikipedia page, so it was likely only a matter of time before the studio realized it could have a real problem on its hands.

The studio has since released a statement saying it’s "aware of the incident," while noting that Parker "was found innocent and cleared of all charges." The statement also emphasizes, "We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."

To get ahead of possible — or, let’s be real, probable — controversy during awards season, Parker and Fox Searchlight approached Deadline, offering exclusive firsthand access to Parker’s account of the story. This instinct makes sense; Deadline is one of the most influential and well-connected entertainment news sources in Hollywood. If Parker and his studio wanted to get their version of the story out there, the site was a solid bet.

But there’s no doubt that Deadline writers Michael Cieply and Mike Fleming Jr. should have cast a more discerning eye on the case and its circumstances. Instead, they wrote more than 4,000 astonishingly tone-deaf words examining The Birth of a Nation’s future awards chances.

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation.
Elliot Davis

The piece is a jaw-dropping example of how not to approach sensitive, fraught topics like sexual assault. Here’s how it set the scene for the interview/damage control to follow:

Parker, with Fox Searchlight’s support, has decided to face this 17-year-old legal matter, head on. Hours before receiving the prestigious Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute, Parker invited a Deadline reporter to his home Thursday – remnants of the five daughters who live with him all around – to look him in the eye and discuss the case.

Upon slicing into this layer cake of questionable editorial decisions, you can find the following:

  • Praise for Parker/Searchlight’s bravery alongside a dismissal of the allegations against Parker as a "17-year-old legal matter"
  • A reminder that Parker is on his way to being held in high esteem within the film industry,
  • A reminder that Parker is a father (of five daughters, no less!)
  • Shameless salivation from Deadline over getting this exclusive

All told, the piece is an exorbitantly long dissection of Parker’s feelings surrounding the case and his chances of establishing himself as a Hollywood heavyweight with the stain of a rape charge lingering on his résumé.

There’s probably a more sensitive version of the Deadline article to be written, one that acknowledges that even though Parker was acquitted, the facts of the case were complicated enough that his co-defendant Celestin was convicted. But Deadline clearly wasn’t interested in trying to provide an objective overview of the situation.

Here are just a couple more eyebrow-raising gems:

… it is difficult at this point to weigh how history will impact Parker’s historical biopic in the harsh light of the upcoming awards season, especially in a post-Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes era when even an allegation of rape creates stigma, and where Mel Gibson was ostracized for merely saying objectionable things while drunk.

Counterpoint: Since when should "awards season" be the primary concern when talking about sexual abuse allegations and/or hostile racism?

At trial, the woman testified she was intoxicated, unconscious through much of the encounter and upset to find she had experienced unwanted sex with Parker — though she acknowledged having willingly engaged in oral sex with him during an encounter the day before.

Counterpoint: First, "experienced unwanted sex" is such a roundabout way to say "raped" that it’s almost impressive. Second, you can give someone a blow job one day and get raped by that person the next. The two incidents have nothing to do with each other, and implying otherwise is both wrongheaded and dangerous.

There are plenty of similar examples in the full article.

Parker, for his part, emphasized throughout the interview that he has "five daughters and a lovely wife," as well as four younger sisters. Also, his mother lives with him. Parker told Deadline that he’d fully expected the charges to crop back up as The Birth of a Nation neared release, but that he’s moved on "from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life."

But after Variety broke the news on August 16 that Parker’s accuser had killed herself in 2012 — bringing considerably more negative attention to an already tense conversation — Parker gave his own separate statement, which was notably more contrite than anything he’d said before.

"I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name," he wrote on Facebook. "Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in."

This isn’t exactly the scenario Searchlight and Deadline wanted — nor probably anticipated — when they tried to get ahead of the bad press. But the whole mess shows just how gross it was to try to contextualize this kind of charge within the realm of a Hollywood award. It also illustrates how drastically the national conversation surrounding rape and sexual assault has changed since Parker was first charged.

Part of the problem with revisiting Parker’s 2001 trial with 2016 eyes is that we’ve changed how we define and talk about rape

It’s impossible to deny that rape trials were handled differently in 2001 than they are in 2016.

In his closing statement at Parker’s trial, Parker’s attorney, Joseph Devecka, cited testimony from another Penn State student who said Jane Doe was known to drink a few times a week before she was of legal drinking age. "I ask you, ladies and gentlemen," Devecka said while addressing the jury, "to use your common sense. How long had this been going on?"

Much of Parker and Celestin’s defense relied on their ability to prove not just that Jane Doe was more sober during the alleged assault than she claimed to be, but that she was a promiscuous woman prone to drinking heavily. It involved character witnesses against Jane Doe and in support of the promising wrestlers she had accused. It rested on parsing the differences between "blacked out" and "unconscious."

These are all still depressingly common means of discrediting victims of sexual assault. It’s still alarmingly difficult to get courts, legislators, and civilians alike to grant the topic the balance of objectivity and sensitivity it requires. But the language surrounding how we talk about rape and sexual assault in America is undeniably and extremely different today from what it was in 2001.

"Date rape" — the most commonly used term for rape by a person the victim knows, or is getting to know — wasn’t even coined as a term until the '80s, as groundswell protests like Take Back the Night and the idea that rape isn’t always a random act of violence gained prominence.

Perhaps most notable is that in 2014, the FBI changed its definition of rape from "the carnal knowledge of a female forcibly and against her will" to "[p]enetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object, or oral penetration by a sex organ of another person, without the consent of the victim."

The social definition of rape has changed, too. As we reexamine cases that were first addressed or settled long in the past — whether it’s Parker’s, Roman Polanski’s, Bill Cosby’s, or Bill Clinton’s — we’re inevitably going to be looking at them through a more unforgiving lens.

Reading the transcript of a 1999 phone call between Parker and Jane Doe reveals red flags in 2016 that might not have registered so sharply in 2001. During that call, Parker was insistent: "I’m saying that you were completely conscious. You may not remember, you may say that you don’t remember … but you were awake, you know what I mean?"

In 1999, that kind of difference led to his acquittal. In 2016, proving she was conscious might not have been enough.

Like Parker has said many times, the case was settled a long time ago. But his regret over the way he handled it then doesn’t change the fact that his continued insistence that his sexual contact with Jane Doe was mutually, enthusiastically consensual — even though almost all signs point to the contrary — is happening in 2016.

The Deadline article about Parker’s dark past and The Birth of a Nation’s Oscar chances was written in 2016. Fox Searchlight’s desperate attempts to change the narrative for its own gain are happening in 2016.

All of them should know better.