Four alumni of Pennsylvania State University who were at the school at the same time as The Birth of a Nation co-writers Nate Parker and Jean Celestin have penned an open letter in support of the embattled filmmakers, as controversy concerning a rape charge brought against the pair 17 years ago continues to swirl around their upcoming film.
In an open letter shared with The Root, the four alumni — who were students and staff at the school when Parker and Celestin attended in 1999 — said they were present at the pair’s trial and accused the media of conducting a “blatant misinformation campaign” concerning the case.
Parker, the writer, director and star of the Sundance hit film, was acquitted of the charges in 2001, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison before appealing the case, which was later dropped when their accuser declined to re-testify. Variety reported that the woman committed suicide in 2012.
“We feel compelled to speak truth to this situation as the media has cherry-picked the most salacious elements while ignoring the actual record,” the alumni wrote in the open letter.
“We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now. This belief was supported by the evidence that eventually fully cleared both Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker. Evidence that many media outlets have chosen to ignore, overlook or mischaracterize today,” the letter continues.
The alumni — LaKeisha Wolf, Dr. Assata Richards, Lurie Daniel Favors and Brian Favors — present ten points to back up their claims, including that a key witness for the prosecution allegedly changed his story several times, and that the accuser had a history of depression prior to the incident.
The group also claimed that Celestin served two years in prison while he fought to clear his name.
“Our belief in Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker’s innocence was validated as we sat through the court trial, heard all of the evidence and witnessed a justice system that was trying its best to lock both men up for as long as possible,” the letter went on. “But that system couldn’t bury them completely. The facts that spoke to their innocence, and the community that was unwilling to allow two additional young black men to be wrongfully convicted of something they did not do, would not allow it.”
In the wake of the controversy, Fox Searchlight — which paid a Sundance record $17.5 million to acquire The Birth of a Nation in a fierce bidding war earlier this year — has reportedly been forced to reconsider their strategy in the run-up to the film’s release.
The American Film Institute cancelled a scheduled screening of the film this week, and the Toronto International Film Festival has said Parker and the filmmakers would not be participating in a press conference at the film’s premiere there next month.
Read the group’s complete open letter at The Root.
Follow Daniel Nussbaum on Twitter: @dznussbaum