Rape case overshadows ‘Birth of a Nation’ movie release

 Lindsey Bahr and Jake Coyle, AP Film writers

A 17-year-old rape accusation and recent reports that the woman accuser committed suicide have cast a shadow over The Birth of a Nation, one of the year’s most anticipated films and the rising star behind it, just as their awards campaign is ramping up.

Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, a drama about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, has been pegged as an Academy Awards candidate since its award-winning debut at the Sundance Film Festival, where it fetched a record $17.5 million acquisition price from Fox Searchlight.

The Birth of a Nation, which Parker stars in, co-wrote, co-produced and directed, is a film some believe will help sweep in a more diverse field of Oscar nominees, along with providing a breakthrough for Parker.

But after a handful of recent trade interviews in which Parker discussed the rape charges he faced and was then acquitted of as a student at Penn State University in 1999, Parker’s past is what’s drawing headlines well before the October release of The Birth of a Nation. Attention has only intensified with the recent news from Hollywood trade publications The Hollywood Reporter and Variety that the accuser, who was not named, killed herself in 2012 at the age of 30 after a few prior attempts.

A death certificate obtained by Variety said she suffered from “major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.”

Representatives for Parker and the studio did not immediately respond to request for comment about the latest reports.

As a 19-year-old wrestler at Penn State, Parker and his roommate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on The Birth of a Nation) were charged with raping the 18-year-old student. The woman said she was unconscious at the time and didn’t consent to the sex. Parker, who testified that he and the woman had previously had sex, and Celestin maintained that it was consensual.

Parker and Celestin invited another friend to join them in having sex with the woman that night, but the third man testified that he declined, saying that it didn’t feel right. Deadline reported that, according to court documents, Parker told the victim, “I felt like you put yourself in that situation, you know what I mean? … I really felt like I didn’t do anything wrong.”

Also according to court documents, the woman tried twice to commit suicide in 1999.

Parker was acquitted in 2001. Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, but that was later overturned when the woman opted not to testify again for a 2005 retrial.

Saying that Parker and Celestin intimidated and harassed her on campus following the incident, she sued Penn State for its failure to protect her. She was awarded a reported $17,500 settlement out of court

Her suffering apparently continued, however.

The Hollywood Reporter spoke to S. Daniel Carter, a Penn State sexual assault advocate, who said the accuser was “tormented” by “the constant contact and fear of seeing her assailants on campus.”

The accuser’s brother, identified only as Johnny, also spoke about his sister too.

“If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point,” Johnny told Variety. “The trial was pretty tough for her.”

After the trial, Johnny said, his sister moved around frequently and became a mother to a son with her boyfriend.

“I think the ghosts continued to haunt her,” he said.

The case largely escaped notice at Sundance in January. But in a pair of trade interviews published Friday, Parker confronted it straightforwardly.

“I was sure it would come up,” Parker told Deadline. “I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the painful moments in my life. And I can imagine it was painful for everyone. I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife.”

In the bright spotlight of Hollywood’s awards season, far less has hurt a film’s chances with Oscar voters. On the other hand, Parker wasn’t found guilty and he has faced the case more directly than some Hollywood stars have in the past. Representatives for Parker and the studio did not immediately respond to requests for comment after news broke of his accuser’s suicide.

A lot is on the line for Fox Searchlight, which paid more for The Birth of a Nation than any previous Sundance film. The movie’s striking poster features Parker as Turner with a noose made out of an American flag. The film will play in September at the Toronto International Film Festival.

In an earlier statement, Fox Searchlight said: “Fox Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”

Parker also received backlash after Ebony magazine reported that he said that he’d never play a gay character, “in an effort to preserve the black man.”

Louis Weisberg contributed to this story.