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Gabrielle Union of Birth of a Nation Speaks Out: “I Cannot Take Nate Parker Rape Allegations Lightly”

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Content warning: this article contains descriptions of rape, sexual assault and suicide.

Gabrielle Union, one of the stars of Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, has published an editorial for the LA Times addressing the rape allegations made against Parker. Seventeen years ago, Nate Parker was accused of rape and sexual assault; he was acquitted on all charges. However, the woman who accused him committed suicide four years ago, after alleging that Parker had harassed her following the trial, which led her to attempt suicide multiple times; these attempts seem to have foreshadowed her eventual suicide in 2012.

The details surrounding this woman’s case, which have been laid out in detail by The Daily Beast, raise some troubling questions. The jury ruled that the sexual act that unfolded that night in 1999 was consensual, but that must have been a difficult case to decide, since as The Daily Beast reports, “witnesses told different stories” as to whether the victim was “blackout drunk, as she claimed—or just inebriated.” The jury ultimately ruled in Parker’s favor, in part because the pair had engaged in consensual sex prior to the incident that night.

However, Parker was not the only person involved in that case; his roommate at the time, Jean McGianni Celestin, was also accused of taking advantage of the defendant that night. Unlike Parker, Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sent to prison–but his conviction was later overturned, after the victim refused to testify a second time. Again, this happened in the wake of what the victim described as “a campaign of harassment” from Parker and Celestin that made her “fear for her safety.”

This case has come up in the news again because of Nate Parker’s movie The Birth of a Nation, in which he stars; he also wrote, directed and produced the film. Celestin’s name is also in the news again, because he actually shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation. Parker and Celestin are still friends and artistic collaborators. Roxane Gay already addressed her own feelings on this issue in an editorial titled “Nate Parker and the Limits of Empathy,” at the end of which she concluded,

I have not yet seen the movie, and now I won’t. Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or “important” it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. No amount of empathy could make that possible.

Gabrielle Union, one of the actors in The Birth of a Nation, is herself a rape survivor. Her character in the film is a rape survivor as well; she explains in her editorial that this was a contributing factor in why she initially wanted to take part in the film: “I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen — other survivors, or even potential perpetrators.” However, she also writes that once she heard about the case against Nate Parker, she felt “stomach-churning confusion.”

Ultimately, Union ends her piece with a message for her readers to keep reading about the issue, particularly stories from rape survivors; it’s worth reading her entire editorial. Some may decide they want to attend the film simply to see Union bring life to a story that she believes is important; others may decide that they don’t want to support the film because of its writers. Regardless, it’s worth reading these perspectives.

(via LA Times, image via Ingrid Richter/Flickr)

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Maddy Myers, journalist and arts critic, has written for the Boston Phoenix, Paste Magazine, MIT Technology Review, and tons more. She is a host on a videogame podcast called Isometric (relay.fm/isometric), and she plays the keytar in a band called the Robot Knights (robotknights.com).