Nate Parker Backers Pen Letter of Support

Nate Parker - Getty - H 2016
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Nate Parker - Getty - H 2016

The statement addresses several aspects of the 17-year-old rape charge against the 'Birth of a Nation' director and calls allegations that he and the film's co-writer, Jean Celestin, harassed their accuser "absolutely untrue."

The ongoing controversy around Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has begun to generate distinct camps as Hollywood weighs its response to the film and its creators: Avoid and ignore? Or pave the way to greater glory? 

On Thursday, a group of four self-described “educators, lawyers, professors, academics and entrepreneurs” issued a lengthy statement in which they declared their support for Parker and Jean Celestin, the director’s one-time co-defendant in a 17-year-old rape case, as well as his writing partner on the film.

“We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now,"  stated the foursome, who were Pennsylvania State University students and staff at the school when Parker and Celestin attended in 1999 and said they were present during the pair's subsequent trial. "This belief was supported by the evidence that eventually fully cleared both Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker. Evidence that many media outlets have chosen to ignore, overlook or mischaracterize today.”

Birth of a Nation, set to hit theaters in October, is Parker’s ambitious depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, an important chapter in American history that the writer-director has said is too often overlooked. The film premiered in January at the Sundance Film Festival and was immediately picked up by Fox Searchlight, which paid $17.5 million for the pic. It will play at the Toronto International Film Festival early next month.

The letter, running more than 1,800 words, includes 10 numbered points addressing various aspects of the case, including what the authors say was a highly racially charged atmosphere at the time on the campus of Penn State University, where Parker and Celestin were both star wrestlers. The writers also claim that investigators threatened witnesses sympathetic to Parker and Celestin, and that a key prosecution witness later changed his testimony.

The letter first appeared on The Root, a website focusing on “black news, opinions, politics and culture.” Celestin also has been a contributor to The Root, posting an article titled “I’m Afraid of Dying Like Eric Garner” in July 2014. Fox Searchlight apparently had no role in either drafting or promoting the letter.

The victim in the case, who remains unnamed by media outlets, died by suicide in 2012, after a long battle with drugs and mental illness. Her family members have spoken publicly about their belief that her descent into illness was triggered by the 1999 alleged rape. As part of a civil suit in 2002, the Women’s Law Project, a group supporting the alleged victim, sued Penn State, claiming that the university had permitted a climate in which people supporting Parker and Celestin — and even the two wrestlers themselves — had “harassed” the victim repeatedly. 

The letter states categorically that the allegations of harassment are “absolutely untrue.”

At least two of the members have worked with Parker in the past on social justice issues and one of them sits on the board of the Nate Parker Foundation, a non-profit that works to empower youth.

One of them is LaKeisha Wolf, a self-described artist and entrepreneur and executive director at the Ujamaa Collective, a non-profit with a “social mission to create spaces, opportunities, networks, education and support for African women to grow as entrepreneurs, artisans and servant-leaders so that we may 'lift as we climb.'"

Wolf created a skin and haircare product company after graduating from Penn State, where she had been president of the Black Caucus the year after Parker and Celestin’s arrest and trial. She received death threats and vicious hate mail while president. Allegations of racial bias at the time of Parker and Celestin’s arrest and trial have become a bigger part of the debate more recently.  

“Many of us viewed this incident involving Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker as yet another example of the blatant racism and violent hostility faced by black students on Penn State’s campus,” the statement declared, “We ask that you read more about that time period here [pdf] to better understand the racial terror we faced.”

When reached by phone at the Ujamma Collective headquarters, Wolf said she needed time to let the statement “marinate” before commenting further.

But when pressed about whether the claims of harassment that resulted in a $17,500 payout from PSU to the victim were, in fact, “absolutely untrue,” Wolf hesitated.

“I did not harass anybody, nor did Jean or Nate,” she said. “Nobody that we know, so that’s what we know. I can’t say what happened in reference to other people.”

According to the lawsuit filed by the Women’s Law Project, the harassment was deliberate and malicious. “Parker and Celestin began an organized campaign to harass Jane Doe and make her fear for her safety,” wrote the victim’s attorneys. “Jane Doe was harassed on campus and was no longer able to eat or socialize in public areas.”

According to the same legal brief, Parker “hurled sexual epithets” at her and made harassing calls to her room. In the statement, Wolf and her co-authors claim that Parker and Celestin were under strict bail conditions and ordered not to have any contact with the victim.

“Had they violated that order, their bail would have been revoked,” they write.

The Women’s Law Project has so far not responded to questions about the most recent letter, or the charges that their own case against Penn State was flawed.

“We have no comment beyond our statement,” said Tara Murtha, a spokesperson for the WLP.

Parker and Celestin went to trial for the rape charge. Parker was acquitted but Celestin was convicted and spent time behind bars (the exact amount of time has been a subject of some dispute and also is discussed in the letter). A higher court eventually overturned Celestin’s conviction on appeal and he was set free, with all charges cleared.

That hasn’t stopped the duo’s detractors from trying to re-litigate the case in public, which has made the PR battle lines even more stark.

"Personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in it," Marcia Nasatir, an Academy member in the executives branch, told The Hollywood Reporter in a recent interview. "Do I want to see a movie from someone who has committed an assault against a woman and who I do not think recognizes his guilt? Right now, based on what I've read, I would not go to the movie."

Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs said the controversy shouldn’t stop people from seeing the movie. “I know just by the conversation that has gone on at Sundance that it's clearly a movie that filmgoers should go and see," she told TMZ.

Another of the letter writers is Brian Favors, who co-founded — and now sits on the board of — the Nate Parker Foundation, whose motto is "Transforming Lives." He was featured in the 2012 documentary Resurrecting Love: The Cemetery That Can Heal a Nation, an exploration of African-American history through cemeteries and burial plots. 

Favors' foundation bio says he specializes in “training educators to use culturally responsive teaching methods to increase academic achievement in at-risk student populations.” He didn’t respond to multiple emails requesting a response. Favors and Parker have collaborated elsewhere. Favors uses Parker’s 2007 breakout film, The Great Debaters, directed by and starring Denzel Washington, as “an educational tool to promote literacy and leadership amongst inner city youth, college students, parents and teachers through classes, presentations, workshops and lectures” according to the consulting company he runs, Break the Cycle Consulting.

In April 2014, Favors and Parker gave a speech at the University of Missouri about the pressures of being black in Hollywood. The website also notes that Favors “adheres to the West African principle of Sankofa: one must always understand their history, in order to create a healthy and prosperous future.”

The third writer is Lurie Daniel Favors, who goes by “Blacknificent Esq.” on Twitter, using the handle @afrostateofmind, which, with the header, “Memories of a Nappy Headed Black Girl,” is also her website. Her Facebook page cites her commitment to political and racial justice.

Until recently, Daniel Favors kept up a ferocious, but steady and polite, stream of tweets defending Parker on Twitter, but the account was recently made private. Daniel Favors has also interviewed Parker about his various projects, including Birth of a Nation. In a recent two-part interview she asked him whether he saw himself as an activist “first.”

“I am,” Parker replied, “because I know that no matter what happens in my career, my people are suffering. No matter what. I could win five Academy Awards tomorrow and there will be black people dead in Chicago. In New York. Atlanta. Many of the victims will be shot by someone who looks like them — largely because of an inferiority complex that excuses the killing of their own image.”

The last of the four, Assata Richards, is a university professor in Texas and works at the Sankofa Foundation. THR was unable to reach her as of press time.