It’s been a rough couple weeks for Nate Parker.
It should be going better. His film “Birth of a Nation” is looking at national release in October. It won the top prizes at the Sundance Film Festival, and Fox Searchlight won the war to distribute it for $17.5 million. Parker, 36, has been lauded as a new triple-threat actor, writer and director.
But then his Penn State past came up.
Seventeen years ago, Parker was a Nittany Lion wrestler. He and a teammate, Jean Celestin, were accused of sexual assault. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was convicted, but that was later overturned. A retrial was granted in 2005 but the accuser opted not to testify, suing Penn State and reaching an out-of-court settlement.
The story has swirled since. This month, Variety and The Hollywood Reporter revealed the woman at the heart of the case committed suicide in 2012.
“I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow,” Parker wrote on Facebook. “I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can’t help but think of all the implications this has for her family.”
But on Thursday, Penn Staters came back to his defense.
It came from artist and entrepreneur LaKeisha Wolf, sociologist Assata Richards, lawyer Lurie Daniel Favors and educational consultant Brian Favors, all Penn State grads who were at the university during the time the Parker and Celestin case occurred. They sent a letter to online “news, opinion and culture site for African-American influencers” The Root.
“Nate Parker and Jean Celestin have never shied away from this incident and have always taken accountability — we, members of their village, required them to take responsibility. And, they have owned this incident in their personal lives and have used this moment to empower themselves to be change agents in their communities ever since. Indeed, both of them have frequently spoken about this period in their lives in an attempt to influence others in our community to make better choices and to build healthier communities,” they wrote. “This story is Nate and Jean’s testimony — one of growth and maturation.”
The writers admitted to “disappointment” in the “personal choices” made by the two, but said “it is our hope and prayer that the outpouring of emotion and discussion that this topic has generated can ignite a process toward healing in our families and communities — a process that is so desperately needed if we are going to bring about true social change.”
The issue comes as the university continues to deal with the cases surrounding the Jerry Sandusky scandal, including its lawsuit with liability insurer Pennsylvania Manufacturers Association. Penn State settled with 32 claimants for $93 million.
“Penn State is committed to the safety and security of our students,” said spokeswoman Lisa Powers.
In 2014, President Eric Barron made a task force on sexual assault and harassment one of his first actions on taking the job. In February 2015, he adopted their 18 recommendations, including moving away from the hearing model of addressing reported offenses to an investigative one.
On Wednesday, U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., came to State College and spoke with the Centre Daily Times, addressing the issue of sexual assault on campuses. He said there needs to be an overall culture change and that men have to be a part of that.
“Guys know,” he said. “It’s got to be called a shameful act. (Rapists) are cowards and should be ostracized. Real men don’t do that.”
Parker’s own words on Facebook echo that.
“No one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom,” he wrote. “I have changed so much since nineteen. I’ve grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community — and will continue to do this to the best of my ability.”
The family of the woman in the case has also questioned the timing of the resurrection of the case. According to the Associated Press, they sent a statement to the New York Times saying they appreciated Parker and Celestin “being held accountable for their actions” but were “dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years.”
Fox Searchlight says it is still releasing the film on schedule. On Wednesday, the American Film Institute cancelled a planned screening and Q&A session, according the the AP.