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Rape, Race and Rebellion: Nate Parker and the movie, Birth of a Nation

By on Sep 8, 2016 in Non-Fiction, Uncategorized, Viewpoints, Writing | 2 comments

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Nate Parker

Nate Parker

For those of you who haven’t been paying attention to the scandal and drama that was triggered by Nate Parker’s new movie, here is a brief recap. Nate Parker along with his friend and co-writer, Jean Celestin, wrote, directed, acted in, and produced a film about Nat Turner and his rebellion in Southhampton County, Virginia during August of 1831. His movie premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to standing ovations, was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million and is reputed to be the black movie that will finally break through the wall built by the conservative Academy of Motion Pictures and Sciences and win the elusive Oscar black filmmakers have long hoped for.

Nat Turner was an educated slave and skilled preacher who persuaded a small slave army to kill between 55 to 65 white Southerners, mostly landowners. As retribution, up to 200 black slaves were murdered and legislatures across the south set up new laws to curtail the education of Blacks and to limit their freedom to congregate even in a religious setting. White southerners feared an educated Black; the ability to read was seen as dangerous.

Birth of a Nation 1915 movie

D W Griffith’s poster with Klansman on horse

Parker titled his movie Birth of a Nation after a movie of the same title originally done by filmmaker D. W. Griffith in 1915. I haven’t seen the Griffith movie but just about anyone who studies film has seen and studied it including Spike Lee and Nate Parker. It’s an iconic film that revolutionized the film industry and so must be watched for what it has to teach about film art. When the Griffith film came out in 1915 it sparked a rebirth of the dreaded Ku Klux Clan. Although presumably begun with romantic and chivalric protective motivations for white womanhood, the Ku Klux Klan became a scourge of the south for many years after its rebirth in 1915. The movie must have been difficult for a black youth to watch.

I’m from Maryland and I never met a Klansman there but I’ve encountered them here in North Carolina. I guess I said the wrong thing in a social gathering and they felt it necessary to intimidate me. It worked. They frightened me. I’m afraid now as I write and don’t want to cross them. They hinted, they presented their side of the facts and left me to make up my own mind on how I should proceed if I want to live and make my home in these beautiful mountains. That’s how they operate. Don’t think they are gone. They aren’t. They exist. They infiltrate politics and commerce and they frighten me. Hopefully they are a minority.

A lot of books have been written about Nat Turner including one by Turner himself. One of the most famous is Confessions of Nat Turner written by William Styron, one of my favorite writers. Even so we have little notion of what he actually looked or sounded like. There must have been something powerful in his manner and appearance. How else could he have inspired fellow slaves to join him in battle? Iconic figures are nourished more by fantasy than dull reality and historians can only offer us an interpretation of the facts not the facts themselves. Was Nat Turner a hero or an outlaw? Was he, like Moses, a messenger of God sent to liberate his people or was he merely a gifted crackpot? The answer depends on the hue of your skin and the culture you inhabit. History can and should be rewritten but it will never be fact. It will always be an interpretation.

I’m writing a memoir and I often wonder what it is that I’m writing. It’s history, my history, but it’s my interpretation of that history, so imagination is there and when I remember sometimes it’s not what I remember but what I think must have happened. Parker is telling a story of the past based on available histories but it’s his interpretation and he added a rape to the story. In the movie, a white man raping Nat Turner’s wife is the impetus for the rebellion, the evil that pushes him over the edge. Men, whatever their color, don’t rape out of love or desire; they rape because they possess power, opportunity and an absence of repercussions. Although a rape wasn’t part of history in this case, it could have been — it’s not a stretch. We know that slaves were often raped and slave women had no refuge, nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Indignation at the rape is the causal element for the rebellion in Parker’s plot. The rape is part of Turner’s indignation with the white man. It stirs his anger.

Nate Parker, at the Cannes Film Festival looked to be the mythical black hero we have been waiting for and for a little while I thought he might actually fit the bill. America needed a break from Bill Cosby and his Quaaludes. It seems like every time we find a nice black guy, one who can stand up for decency and be a hero, something happens. I used to love Bill Cosby and I was ready to love Nate Parker. Then the bomb dropped.

The news came out that Nate along with his friend, Jean Celestin, raped a girl at the University of Pennsylvania in 1999. Nate was found Not Guilty. His friend and roommate, Jean Celestin, was found Guilty but that conviction was later overturned because the accuser failed to appear. That used to be enough to clear someone’s name. But today it’s not. There’s an important difference between Not guilty and Innocent and women who have lived through our legal system’s archaic idea of justice know this all too well. There are 700 pages of testimony available on the internet and the case has been retried in the minds and hearts of anyone who reads it. There was a witness, a friend named Tamerlan Kangas who was there that night. I read only Tamerlan Kangas’ testimony but that was enough. It was rape, pure and simple. Kangas testified that the girl wasn’t moving when Parker had sex with her. The two boys, Kangas and Celestin, watched from the door. Then Parker, with a smirk on his face, waved them in, inviting them to participate. Celestin went in and Parker and Celestin took turns having sex with the girl. To his credit, Kangas left. Parker and Celestin got off, Nate because the woman had previously had sex with him and Jean because she failed to appear for the second trial. His lawyer had appealed the first one.

According to Variety’s First Article, Nate had this to say about the rape.

“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.” 

This kind of apology from a rapist has been masquerading as the gentlemanly way to handle an allegation of rape for a long time. It goes something like this. I did nothing. I am innocent but the young lady thinks I did and has made a false allegation. I am a good man. I am successful and I have a reputation to protect. Come see my movie.

Then several days later, on Tuesday, September 16, 2016, The Hollywood Reporter published an article revealing that Nate’s accuser had committed suicide in 2012 and the apology that had seemed adequate a few days ago was suddenly viewed with the skepticism it deserved. Many strong black women wrote about their disappointment with Nate. The one that got to me most was by Maiysha Kai in The Root, an online magazine. Her “Open Letter To Nate Parker” was a cry for understanding and a plea for a new dialogue surrounding the issues of rape, misogyny and the toxic male privilege that has permeated our society for years. Nate said that he did not want to “relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope . . .What do I do?” Nate is tired of dealing with it. He wants it to go away. Maiysha Kai answers him and begs him to stop making this all about himself. She writes,

No, Nate, you can’t relive your life 17 years ago. If you could, I doubt you’d put yourself in a position where your character would still be questioned today. But even if you were entirely innocent then, you are uniquely qualified now to address the damage that lack of consent can do to young lives. It is your opportunity to take. Your redemption—and legacy—may lie in it.

To use your own words: “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing. … We can’t just skip the healing part and say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s in me, you and the air we breathe.”

Thankfully, the controversy is giving the girl’s family some healing. In an interview with the New York Times , they said,

“We appreciate that after all this time, these men are finally being held accountable for their action.” The woman’s sister was less forgiving. In the same article she is quoted as saying, “these guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”

Her death certificate, obtained by Variety, stated that she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse…..” The US Department of Veteran’s Affairs reports that almost one in three rape victims will develop PTSD sometime during their lives.

So Nate is uncomfortable, Jean is uncomfortable, and Fox Searchlight is uncomfortable — but the girl is dead. Nate apologizes again, this time more profusely. Is he being coached? Probably. There is $17.5 million riding on this. Nate Parker was interviewed by Britni Danielle at Ebony Magazine on August 27, 2016. The following are excerpts from that interview. He attempts to explain what it was like for him when he was 19, what it was like to be young, good looking and a star wrestler at the University of Pennsylvania.

“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.”

Nate is trying but he’s missing the point. I hope he doesn’t think that what happened with Celestin, the girl and himself was a threesome. A threesome doesn’t mean you get a girl so drunk she can’t move and then ask your friend to do her too. It means three adult people who choose to have sex together. What happened with the girl was not a threesome. It was a rape that involved two men. Nate wants us to understand that attitudes were different 17 years ago.

If I can be just honest about it, just being down. Back then, when I was young and we were out being dogs it was about is she down? You think she down.

He wants me to understand that it was like that back then, that men were dogs and it was normal. And there’s a little side issue. I’m a 74-year-old white woman. I don’t use terms like “down” and I just want to be sure everyone who might read this understands what he means by it. It doesn’t mean down on the floor or down on the bed. When he says, You think she down? he means Do you think she agrees?” But lets get back to the issue at hand.

He says that he didn’t understand what he had done wrong when he made his first statement about the rape as if it happened a long time ago. The interviewer points out that it was only two weeks ago.

Yeah. Well, when you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s like, if I don’t know how to swim and two weeks later I know how to swim, I know how to swim. Honestly, when I started reading them comments I had to call some people and say, What did I do wrong? What did I say wrong?                                                                                   I called a couple of sisters that know that are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity, and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.

Finally, it sounds like he might have the beginnings of understanding. She asks him how does it feel to be called a rapist.

All I can do is seek the 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. You don’t think about other people. 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.

I like this answer. It would appear that he is beginning to get it and if he gets it, he is in a position to help other men get it too. He just compared toxic masculinity with White Privilege. They are the same. I agree.

I’m trying to absorb a lot of information. I watched The Hunting Ground. I read Roxane Gay’s open letter, I read Maiysha Kai’s open letter, I read Demetria D’Oyley. Just to really…what do I need to learn about the situation? If I’m really down…if I’m really serious about changing my attitude, if I’m really serious that those comments are wrong, then what do I need to be feeling? And how do I get to that place that there’s an assault against women?

Maybe there is a trace of arrogance here but he’s trying to understand. There’s hope.

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?

There’s hope.This sounds positive. It’s not perfect but just look at where we were when we started. He’s beginning to get it.

The interviewer asks him why he didn’t say all this at the beginning, when he gave the first two interviews.

This is hard; I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this. Not everyone has the best intentions. I thought I was giving the interview, at the time of those two interviews–and one really just bit off the other–I didn’t know the status of the women. I didn’t know. I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. I was acting as if I was the victim because I felt like, my only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know. I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second.

You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was being even arrogant. And learning about her passing shook me, it really did. It really shook me.

Lets go back to the rape of Nat Turner’s wife in the movie. What started as Parker’s indignation about White Male Privilege has been diffused by his own behavior one night 17 years ago. The screenplay mirrors Parker’s reality. I hate it when that happens in my own life. It’s generally a lesson in humility. There is some lesson I need to learn to move on, to become a better person. But I must accept my own fallibility. I’m not perfect and neither is Parker

Gabrielle Union, Actress

Gabrielle Union, Actress in movie, Birth of a Nation

This is a complicated piece but so is the racism and so is rape and there is another issue that needs to be addressed before I finish. The actress who plays Nat Turner’s wife in the movie, the woman who is raped by a white man, is Gabrielle Union. In an Op-Ed piece for the LA Times Ms. Union reveals that she has been raped.

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.

Different roads circling one brutal, permeating stain on our society. A stain that is finely etched into my own history. Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence.

There is one line from Gabrielle Union’s article that bears repeating.”Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals.” It is my hope that the men reading this are beginning to pause and think about what is happening in the world today. It is my hope that they will put aside their defense mechanisms. I think that Nate Parker, like so many men, black or white, didn’t realize that rape is not something women get over easily. Rape happens in dorm rooms as well as in dark alleys. It happens in living rooms and bedrooms of the wealthy as well as the poor. Men are angry with women. I know that. Women tease and laugh at them but is that so very awful? “A rape throbs” in a woman’s memory. It doesn’t go away. When I was talking about this a friend asked “Why do they want to “drag that old memory out of the closet?” She doesn’t understand the pain. Come on ladies, do you have to go through it yourself to understand it? Let’s bring it back out into the light. Let’s examine it again in the light of a new day. And please, let’s have an open dialogue about it. Rape isn’t a woman’s issue. It’s isn’t just a black issue or a white issue. It’s everyone’s issue — it’s America’s issue. Nate Parker’s movie is an opportunity for us to talk. Let’s do that.

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  1. Laura P Schulman

    September 8, 2016

    Post a Reply

    Great post!

    I don’t buy Nate Parker’s stereotyped “What did I do wrong? Oh, thank you society, you have educated me. I’ve been an ignorant bastard, but I’m learning, I really am. Just be sure and come see my movie so the money folks don’t come after me, OK?” Bullshit. He knows he raped the woman.

    I think the poster looks like a Crusader, but the KKK probably ripped that off for their own evil designs. Being Jewish in places where Jews don’t normally live, my family expected at any time to have a cross burned in our yard. That never happened, but something else did…they burned our family art gallery.

    • hannahpowers

      September 9, 2016

      Post a Reply

      It looked like rape to me too. What is good is the discussion and there is lots of that. I’m not sure he isn’t sorry. I mean genuinely beginning to understand what goes on with women when they are raped. I have to listen to what else he has to say and what he does in the future.
      On the poster I guess you mean the old Roman Catholic Crusaders. You make me cringe but I can’t take responsibility for the Crusaders. They were as bad as ISIS is now. I’m sorry about your family art gallery. That sounds like a story you’ll have to tell me some day.
      Take good care of yourself.

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