The Rev. Al Sharpton is throwing his weight behind embattled writer and director Nate Parker, whose film Birth of a Nation has been marred by a rape charge Parker faced nearly two decades ago while a student at Penn State University.
Speaking in Harlem to supporters of the organization he runs, the National Action Network, Sharpton lashed out at Hollywood’s power brokers and a right-wing media for trying to “discredit” Parker just at the moment when his film is set to debut.
“Now, all of a sudden, they rediscover what they already knew,” said Sharpton, according to comments first published in The Root. “The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger.”
Birth of a Nation tells the story of the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The unflinching portrayal of slavery’s horrors and Turner’s personal story captivated audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January and fetched a record $17.5 million when it was sold to Fox Searchlight. Parker has said he modeled the movie in part on Braveheart, and has spoken eloquently about Turner’s central and often overlooked place in American history.
But the past rape charges have gained a narrative power of their own in the months since the film gained traction. Parker’s writing partner on Birth of a Nation was Jean Celestin, who was accused alongside Parker when the two were Penn State wrestlers in 1999.
Police arrested the pair in 1999 after an unnamed freshman student alleged that together, they had raped her while she lay unconscious in Parker’s apartment.
Parker was eventually acquitted during a trial, while Celestin was convicted and sentenced to six months behind bars. The conviction was later overturned on appeal when prosecutors declined to pursue the case, citing difficulties in gathering all the necessary witnesses.
The accuser, who had been ready to testify, received a $17,000 settlement from the university a decade later. She committed suicide in 2012, according to family members.
“Nobody is justifying wrong, but if you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways,” Sharpton said, according to The Root. “All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?”
He added about Parker’s Birth of a Nation, “Somebody has to have enough courage to tell the truth no matter what the consequences are.
“All these millions of dollars these folks get paid, and they won’t tell our story. All these elaborate homes they build, and they won’t tell our story. And here comes a man with a wife and five children who puts it all on the line, and you think I’m going to be quiet? We are going to stand up and tell our story.”