Op-Ed: Birth of A Nation, Where Do You Draw the Line?

by Hodan Hassan

Birth of a Nation is a movie about Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led a slave rebellion in the 1800’s in Virginia. But that might not be why the film is familiar to you. You may know this movie only because it was recently discovered that the director, Nate Parker, and one of the film’s writers, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping a young woman in 1999, while they were in college at Pennsylvania State University, infamous for its “sweep it under the rug” attitude toward accusations of on-campus sexual assault.

Parker and Celestin raped the young woman while she was drunk. Parker alleged that she was sober enough to say yes. The woman said she was blacking out and remembers flashes of Parker and another man performing sex without her permission. There was a trial in 2001.

Nate Parker walked away scott-free and Jean Celestin, though found guilty, had his sentence overturned in a second trial in 2005. These men moved on with their lives, got rich and successful. The young woman, however, did not have such an easy time of it because, you know, SHE WAS RAPED! She had a child a year after the trial, and 10 years later she killed herself.

So listen, in 1999 there were a whole lot of ‘she said/he said’ accusations, and after all these years there’s still a debate about the rape that took place that night in that college. I say: there’s no ‘he said, she said’ here, there’s only the truth. That truth is that a woman was raped and everyone failed her.

When it comes to rape it feels like people, mostly men but women too, take it as something that just happens and can be explained away. The truth of the matter is that rape is a crime against humanity, it is the theft of someone’s sense of safety and dignity; making them feel like a prisoner in their own body.

Until society sees rape as a crime worth fighting against, there will always be this false notion that there are two sides or, in this particular case, three sides to the story. There is always only one side—the truth as told by the rape victim. No excuses, no ‘he said/she said’.

What, then, should we do about Birth of a Nation and Nate Parker? I have already drawn the line of what I will tolerate and accept from people in Hollywood, and Nate Parker is on the wrong side of my line. We know, in our hearts that there are many Hollywood executives, directors, and producers who have sexually or otherwise assaulted women in their lives, past or present.

So I am not saying that Nate Parker is the first or last director to commit a heinous crime, He is, however, one I can’t forgive or forget. There are lot of people, Black people, who are coming to his defense and saying this story is only coming out now because he is on the verge of a level of success in Hollywood that most black directors don’t reach. They say we should forgive him because he’s a Black man.

I disagree with this stance, It may be true that some probably dug into his past to discredit his success because he’s a Black director. So should we ignore the harm he’s done to the woman he raped? The harm he’s done to her family?

HELL NO. We are complex people as Black folk, so we should be able to understand the forces of anti-Blackness that exist in the world that brought us to this point AND feel the emotions we feel about the crime he’s committed. We should find a way to move forward that we can feel right about.

As a Black woman in this world that caters to men, I choose to believe women who are courageous enough to speak out against the men, powerful or aspiring to power, who violate them. I choose to believe that there are not a lot of avenues for those women to regain control of their lives if we don’t support them.

For this reason and more, I am choosing not to see Birth of a Nation. I long ago decided that I won’t be seeing any more movies about slavery, but I had planned on buying a ticket to show support for a Black director. After hearing and reading some articles about what Nate Parker and Jean Celestin have done, I am drawing the line to stand for women, for justice and for survivors.

Where do you draw your line?

 Image courtesy of Fox Searchlight

4 thoughts on “Op-Ed: Birth of A Nation, Where Do You Draw the Line?”

  1. I actually find it quite easy to draw the line between the actual history of the black experience in America and the crimes committed by a film director, just as I found it easy to separate the thrill of seeing a black man elected president of a country founded on slavery and President Obama’s open and proud anti-black racism. Don’t others?

  2. This is an extraordinary, well written and provocative piece. Thank you, Hoson, for forcing us to examine these issues.

    Cindi Laws

    South Seatt

  3. A black man is accused of rape by a white woman and found INNOCENT by an all white jury in rural Pennsylvania. That’s not good enough for you though. Supposedly there’s a hostility of the courts looking away and going easy on black men accused of raping or assaulting a white woman. Anyone who says that is either lying or completely ignorant of history. At the very least you cannot support the character lynch of Nate Parker and claim to support blacklivesmatter.

  4. I had never heard of the Nate Parker rape trial before this article appeared. I had already decided to see “Birth of a Nation”. Since Mr. Parker was tried and acquitted of the rape, I see no reason to withdraw support by not seeing his movie. In fact, I saw the movie already. To say it is powerful is a gross understatement. It is a story that should have been told a long time ago; the film is extremely well done–from the filmography to the acting to the writing. I hope this film goes down in history as an important work in itself, not because of the associated rape trial. The issue of sexual exploitation of women is a whole other issue. To those who are appalled by Mr. Parker now, I’m wondering where you have been in the past 20-odd years in fighting for women’s rights? Why now? Why this movie? It reminds me of people who take up the “we need gun control” mantra every time there is well publicized shooting; the outcry fades quickly and those with the loudest voices seem to be those who do nothing until the next opportunity to make themselves feel as if they care when in reality they do nothing. I don’t see how boycotting this movie does anyone any good. I’m glad the movie was done. I hope to see from Mr. Parker and wish him and his family well.