As Nate Parker prepares for the wide release of his highly-anticipated breakout slave rebellion drama The Birth of a Nation, an old rape case brought against him 17 years ago while he was a student at Penn State could complicate Fox Searchlight’s ambitious plans for the film, which is already expected to be a major contender at next year’s Academy Awards.
Birth of a Nation — about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in the antebellum South — electrified audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January, winning both the grand jury and audience prizes. Fox Searchlight quickly snapped up the film for a festival record $17.5 million.
But now, according to Deadline, a rape charge brought against Parker in 1999 could threaten to engulf the rising Hollywood star in unwanted controversy, even though he was ultimately cleared of the charges.
Since it swept the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prizes and sold in a stunning $17.5 million worldwide rights deal to Fox Searchlight at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has been considered a front-runner film in the Oscar race. The wrenching, brutal depiction of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising in 1831 Virginia was a welcome respite from the outcry over a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees the past two years that haunted the Academy and led to sweeping overhauls. Who better to root for than Parker, an actor who, not satisfied to be considered a name on a casting director’s list, wrote his own second act and scripted, directed, produced and starred in a film considered every bit as powerful as 12 Years A Slave?
A brewing controversy threatens to challenge the trajectory of that inspiring narrative. Memories of 17-year-old rape charges waged against both Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares co-story credit with Parker) while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999 left Fox Searchlight in full crisis mode these past weeks, scrambling to figure out how best to protect its sizable investment and Oscar chances by getting in front of a disclosure that is bubbling up in the mainstream press. The transcripts of the trial are public record and readily available, as Deadline discovered — the clerk there offered that numerous inquiries have been made recently — and the play-by-play is a sordid he-said-she-said affair that pitted a female student against Parker and Celestin. She claimed both men had sex with her after she had passed out in their room following a night of drinking. They claimed the encounter was consensual. Traumatized, she subsequently dropped out of college, and attempted suicide, per court documents. Parker, who had an earlier mutually willing sexual encounter with the student, was acquitted of the charges. Celestin initially was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal and his case was not retried.
Why would an incident that ended in Parker’s acquittal nearly two decades ago be at all relevant in a movie that took place in Antebellum Virginia? It wouldn’t, if Parker — who studied management science and information systems with the intention of a career in IT, computer programming and management before he fell into acting — hadn’t remade his career to where he is on the cusp of being an A-list writer-director, and potential Oscar front-runner.
Read the full story at Deadline.