Out of respect for the bravery and the legend of Nat Turner as well as the blood, sweat and years Nate Parker spent trying to tell his story on film, The Birth of A Nation (Fox Searchlight, 10.7) deserves to be seen and assessed on its own terms. The response to Parker’s film should not, in a fair and balanced world, be regarded as a referendum on the tragic 1999 incident at Penn State that has enveloped Parker and which also resulted, at least in part, in the 2012 suicide of the woman who accused Parker and Jean Celestin of rape.
A Variety guest editorial about Parker and the film, penned by the victim’s sister Sharon Loeffler, was posted today. Here are some portions:
“My sister was raped 60 days after her 18th birthday. She was a freshman at Penn State University. The defendants charged in the case, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin, were on the wrestling team and had the power of the Penn State Athletic Department behind them.”
HE Qualifier: The late victim, allegedly inebriated on the night of the incident, was violated against her will when Celestin, at the request of Parker, joined some one-on-one sexual activity that was already underway between the victim and Parker. In college parlance Parker and Celestin tried to “run a train on her” or otherwise engage in a menage a trois.
It was this activity that led to Parker being found innocent at the conclusion of the first trial, and to Celestin being found guilty. (He later appealed and walked.)
“[My sister] was harassed and hounded, and ended up dropping out,” Loeffler writes. “She had just aged out of the foster care system, so it was a big deal for her to go to college. She had a chance at a brand new life, but that was stolen from her.
“Two years later she went through the ordeal of testifying. She endured cross-examination by two high-priced lawyers who attacked her character and her background. Ultimately Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty, but the case was later overturned on appeal.
“In the years that followed, Nate Parker became a well-known actor. It tormented my sister to see him thrive while she was still struggling. In 2012, she committed suicide. It took me more than two years to not cry uncontrollably every day over her loss.
“I can only imagine the pain she would be experiencing now to see Nate Parker promoting his new movie, The Birth of a Nation, which he wrote with Celestin.”
Here’s the most grounded part of the piece: “As her sister, the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify Turner’s rebellion.
“This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape. Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.
“I think it’s important for people to know Nat Turner’s story. But people should know that Turner did not need rape to justify what he did. Parker and Celestin did not need to add that to Turner’s story to make him more sympathetic. Fox Searchlight should add a disclaimer indicating that did not happen or remove those scenes altogether.
“I think Nate Parker and Jean Celestin knew this would come up. I think they thought that they could get away with exploiting my sister again, just like they did back at Penn State. They would just say that they were exonerated, and that they could dismiss her allegations. And now, instead of the power of Penn State, they would have the power of 20th Century Fox and the Murdoch family behind them.
“But in the last month, as the trial transcripts have come out, I have been gratified to see so many people rally to defend my sister. I know she would feel honored, as she never got that level of support in life.
“Since she is no longer here to speak for herself, I feel a duty to speak on her behalf. I was the closest person to her throughout her life. Nate Parker caused her so much pain, and that pain and anger are still raw for me.
“I will wait for a true version of this story to be told — one that respects history and does not re-exploit my sister. When she was 18 years old and incapacitated, Nate Parker and Jean Celestin had power over her. They abused that power, and they continue to wield that power to this day.”