Nate Parker Speaks Out on Decades-Old Rape Controversy

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Nate Parker

The 'Birth of a Nation' director is looking to come back with the police shooting drama 'American Skin,' which premieres in Venice.

Nate Parker is back.

Three years after shooting to fame — and a $17.5 million payday — for his directorial debut Birth of a Nation, only to come crashing down after reports of a decades-old rape charge resurfaced, the writer-director has returned, with a new film, American Skin, which premiered at the Venice Film Festival on Sunday.

For the first time since the scandal, Parker is willing to talk about it. At a press conference on Sunday in Venice, he admitted to being "tone deaf" to to criticism of his response at the time.

"The last 3 years have been such an learning experience for me," Parker said. "The reality is that three years ago I was absolutely tone deaf to the realities of certain situations that were happening in the climate ...There were a lot of people that were hurt by the way I responded and how I approached things, and I apologize to those people. It has been a journey. I feel very blessed to be here. To be at the Venice Film Festival with a film I believe so desperately in."

Director Spike Lee joined Parker at the Venice press conference to lend support and address reporters' questions. Lee will present the official world premiere of American Skin in Venice Sunday night and will hold a Q&A with Parker afterwards.

The BlacKkKlansman director said he came on board to support American Skin after he saw a finished cut and he had a "man-to-man, brother-to-brother" talk with Parker.

"He talked about the growth, but also the pain," Lee said. "In the end, I said: 'brother, I'm with you.' And that's why I'm here."

American Skin, financed for under $5 million, got backing from Mark Burg, best known for the Saw franchise, Paris-based Tarak Ben Ammar, whose producer credits include 2007's Hannibal Rising, as well as from  the L.A.-based German producer Lukas Behnken.

The film follows a U.S. military veteran, played by Parker, whose son is shot dead by police after a routine traffic stop. When the offending officers are acquitted of the shooting, Parker and his military buddies take matters into their own hands, kidnapping the cops and putting on their own trial to determine guilt and innocence. Recruiting a group of jurors from citizens, janitorial staff and nonviolent offenders, they put the officers, and by extension, the American system of injustice on the stand.

An earnest attempt to respond to the issues raised by the Black Lives Matter movement, there is no doubting Parker's sincerity in American Skin.

Parker was clear he felt he had a social responsibility to make this movie, and to try and have a real-world impact.

"Nina Simone said the artist's job is to reflect the times," said Parker, referencing the legendary singer and Civil Rights activist. "We live in very dark times, in the United States of America."

Producer Burg said he put up the money to finance American Skin because it was a "movie that had to be told," adding he hoped the film would contribute to a dialog between "the police department and the people...so that our country can start healing."

Burg said, following the experience of making American Skin, he and Ben Ammar have set up a new company to finance and produce "passion projects from writer-directors" similar to Parker.

Parker made his own social justice goals for the film clear.

"If this film can keep the breath inside of one young, or old, black or brown, or for that matter white citizen, it will be the most important film I've ever done."

Parker added he was "humbled" to be able to continue to make movies, and that he wasn't taking any of this for granted. 

"I've learned, I'll continue to learn. I've 39 years old now and hopefully I have a long way to go and can continue to take from the wisdom of people that I need need to be introspective about where I've come from and what I've come through."

Birth of a Nation debuted in January 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival, where the slave revolt drama — which Parker wrote, directed and starred in — was picked up by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, a record sum at the time for an acquisition out of the festival. Rave reviews put Birth of a Nation as the film to beat for the upcoming Oscar race.

But the newfound attention on Parker put a spotlight on a 1999 rape case, in which Parker and his Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin, both wrestlers at Penn State at the time, were accused of raping a fellow student. Parker was acquitted. Celestin was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail. The conviction was later overturned on appeal, with Celestin arguing he had had ineffective representation.

The case had always been public knowledge, and Parker had not tried to cover it up. In an initial Facebook post responding to the controversy, he called the encounter "unambiguously consensual.”

The controversy intensified in August 2016 when it was revealed that the accuser had killed herself in 2012.

Parker did a series of high-profile TV interviews where he addressed the controversy but, because he refused to apologize — "I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent and I'm not going to apologize for that,” he told Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts — many in the media condemned the filmmaker for a perceived lack of sensitivity or for a sufficient show of remorse.

The scandal essentially killed Birth of a Nation. Fox Searchlight pulled its planned awards campaign push for the film, giving it only a limited release on October 2016. Birth of a Nation grossed just $16.8 million worldwide.

After Venice, American Skin will move to Deauville American Film Festival in France, where it will screen next month. The film does not yet have a U.S. distributor.