Earlier this year, director Nate Parker was on top of the world — his upcoming film, The Birth of a Nation, had been heralded by critics as a masterpiece. Today, Parker is under fire for initially downplaying resurfaced sexual assault allegations from a woman who accused him of rape 17 years ago.
Now a top actress in Parker’s movie is speaking out: Gabrielle Union responded to the rape allegations in the Los Angeles Times on Friday. Her op-ed is worth reading in full, but here are some notable excerpts:
Twenty-four years ago I was raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store where I was then working. Two years ago I signed on to a brilliant script called “The Birth of a Nation,” to play a woman who was raped. One month ago I was sent a story about Nate Parker, the very talented writer, director and star of this film. Seventeen years ago Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault. Four years ago the woman who accused him committed suicide. …
Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor. …
As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said “no,” silence certainly does not equal “yes.” Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a “no” as a “yes” is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital.
For Union, the theme in this op-ed seems to be a sense of betrayal or, at the very least, astonishing disappointment: She took this role to communicate to audiences the awful toll of rape — only to find out that the movie and its director were mired in a huge controversy that shows why it’s so important to communicate sexual boundaries and consent more clearly in society.
Union writes about her own children: “We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else.”
This is exactly the kind of conversation going on in college campuses today. Sexual assault victim advocates are trying to get people — men — to understand that the absence of “no” does not mean “yes,” that taking advantage of someone who’s drunk or unconscious is rape, and that universities and the criminal justice system need to take rape allegations much more seriously.
Yet rape culture is so prevalent that even a movie that a star actress interpreted as sending an anti-sexual assault message is now overwhelmed by allegations that the director raped someone.
For more on the Nate Parker rape charges, read Caroline Framke’s great explainer.