In an effort to preempt controversy ahead of his upcoming Oscar campaign, The Birth of a Nation's Nate Parker has addressed the 1999 rape charges that have followed him throughout his career. During his sophomore year at Penn State University, Parker and his roommate, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping a female student while she was allegedly unconscious. Parker was ultimately acquitted of the charges in 2001, while Celestin's conviction was overturned and there was no retrial. The case, which sparked racial tension on campus, led to a lawsuit filed by the Women’s Law Project on behalf of the woman against PSU over its treatment of sexual assault that was later settled. Nearly two decades later, Parker spoke with Deadline to reaffirm his innocence:
"I was sure it would come up. It is there, on my Wikipedia page, the Virginia Pilot … I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful … [he wells up at the memory] 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. My mom lives here with me, I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters. Women have been such an important part of my life. I try, every day, to be a better father to my daughters, and a better husband.”
Parker also attempted to put to rest allegations of homophobia (he reportedly once said he would not play a gay character in order to "preserve the black man," or any role that "emasculates" him), saying he is an ally to all and has no plans to speak on this controversy again for the duration of his film's Oscar buzz:
"I will not relive that period of my life, every time I go under the microscope,” he said. “What do I do? When you have a certain level of success, when things start to work, things go under the microscope and become bigger and bigger things. I can’t control people; I can’t control the way people feel. What I can do, is be the most honorable man I can be. Live my life with the most integrity that I can, stand against injustice everywhere I see it, lead charges against injustice, against people of color, against the LGBT community. That’s me. The black community is my community, the LGBT community too, and the female community. That is my community. That's me, it’s who I am."
In an email to Deadline, Celestin (who has co-story credit on The Birth of a Nation) wrote, "This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of. I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career." As Fox Searchlight (which bought Parker's film at Sundance for a record sum) readies an Oscar bid, Parker says he didn't keep the studio in the dark about his past, though it's unclear when execs learned of the rape case. "Anytime anyone has asked me about this, I’ve been open. It’s tough reliving it, 17 years after the fact, but I never hid it from Fox," he says. "The last 48 hours, it was something we discussed and I’ve always said, I live in truth. I don’t know how these things work, who to talk to and what to say, but I have been very clear with everyone. Anyone who wants to talk to me, I will talk to them."
Fox, for its part, says Parker and the film have their full support. “Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State,” the studio said in a statement to Deadline. “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.”