Writer-director Nate Parker addressed the mounting controversy surrounding a nearly two-decade-old rape case in an extensive interview with Ebony, telling the magazine that his initial response to the resurfacing of the 1999 incident was both “knee-jerk” and “selfish.”
“I think it’s very difficult to talk about injustice and not deal with what’s happening right now,” Parker told the audience Friday night at the Merge Summit in Los Angeles, according to Ebony. “When I was first met with the news that this part of my past had come up, my knee-jerk reaction was selfish. I wasn’t thinking about even the potential hurt of others; I was thinking about myself.”
Friday’s event was a rare public appearance from Parker. The 36-year-old actor has been engulfed in scandal stemming from a rape charge brought against him and Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin 17 years ago. Parker was ultimately acquitted in 2001. Celestin was reportedly found guilty of sexual assault and sentenced to six months in prison, but appealed the case, which was later dropped when the victim chose not to testify again.
The case resurfaced in the media earlier this summer, and Parker remained mum for months as a slew of articles and tweets were being written and sent about him. He gave a pair of interviews to Variety and Deadline earlier this month. When it was reported that his rape accuser had committed suicide, the actor published a brief Facebook message, noting that he was “devastated” to hear about it.
Addressing the controversy on Friday, Parker attributed his actions in 1999 to “male privilege” and a “male culture” which he says is having a “destructive effect” on black people.
“This is happening for a very specific reason,” Parker said at the Merge Summit. “To be honest, my privilege as a male, I never thought about it. I’m walking around daring someone to say something or do something that I define is racist or holding us back, but never really thinking about male culture and the destructive effect it’s having on our community.”
After his speech on Friday, Parker opened up further about his mental state 17 years ago and how his thinking has changed as it relates to male masculinity.
“When I think about 1999, I think about being a 19-year-old kid, and I think about my attitude and behavior just toward women with respect objectifying them,” Parker said in an interview with Ebony. “I never thought about consent as a definition, especially as I do now. I think the definitions of so many things have changed.”
Parker continued: “Put it this way, when you’re 19, a threesome is normal. It’s fun. When you’re 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about–for me, back then–if you can get a girl to say yes, you win.”
Asked how he feels about being called a rapist, Parker said, “I’ll say this: I don’t want it to be about me. If you’re asking me about a particular event, that’s one thing. But I can see that there are a lot of people that have been hurt, a lot of people that are survivors. I’m finding out people in my own circle that are survivors that I didn’t even know. There are people on my film that are survivors that carry that pain, and I had to call and talk to them all, like, how you feel about what’s happening? What do I need me to do? What do I need to get?”
Now, Parker says he’s focused on seeking “information that’ll make me stronger, that’ll help me overcome my toxic masculinity, my male privilege, because that’s something you never think about.”
“It’s the same thing with White Supremacy. Trying to convince someone that they are a racist or they have White Privilege–if it’s in the air they breathe and the culture supports them, sometimes they never have to think about it at all. I recognize as a man there’s a lot of things that I don’t have to think about. But I’m thinking about them now,” he said.
Parker says it was “normal” when he was 19 for men to “trade stories” about “sexual conquest” with women.
The actor, now the father of a daughter in college, says, “I have talked to her about it all. I mean there’s a 1999 lens and then there’s a 2016 lens, and I think there’s a hyper-sensitivity–as there should be–to what’s happening around campuses, what’s happening with this behavior, that because if it’s not addressed it’s perpetuated.”
Earlier this week, the American Film Institute canceled a previously planned screening for Parker’s Birth of a Nation.
Variety reported earlier this month that Birth distributor Fox Searchlight — which paid a Sundance record $17.5 million to acquire the film earlier this year — may alter its promotional campaign in the wake of the scandal, including limiting Parker’s press exposure ahead of the film’s release.
Birth of a Nation is due out in theaters October 7.