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"Birth of a Nation"

Rape case casts pall on highly anticipated film about Nat Turner slave rebellion

August 17, 2016

While film critics eagerly await the October release of The Birth of a Nation, a drama centered on the Nat Turner slave rebellion, the suicide of a woman whom the film’s director, writer and star, Nate Parker, was accused, and later acquitted, of raping while he was a student at Penn State University has cast a shadow over the project. Parker’s college roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who is credited in the movie, had also been charged in the case. The alleged victim, it was reported on Tuesday, committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 30.

The Birth of a Nation screened at the Sundance Film Festival this year — shortly after a lack of diversity at the Oscars led critics to create the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite as a form of protest. Parker said that the film, a reappropriation of D.W. Griffith’s racist 1915 film of the same title, was intended to help America confront its legacy of slavery head on. As the film’s popularity surged, Fox Searchlight consented to a festival record fee for the right to distribute the film.

A week before the alleged victim’s suicide was reported, Parker was asked about the now 17-year-old case by and Variety. Parker and his roommate had been accused of raping the victim while she was unconscious — court documents further allege that the two harassed, intimidated, and stalked the woman after she pressed charges. Both men claimed the sex was consensual, and Parker, who, according to court records had previously engaged in consensual oral sex with the woman, was acquitted. His roommate was convicted, but appealed his case. Accounts conflict about how his case was ultimately resolved.

The woman’s family has issued a statement in which they asked for privacy, saying they “are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to light after 17 years” and that they hope to protect the victim’s son “from this media storm.” The woman’s sister, Sharon Loeffler, said, however, that this view did not represent her own sentiments — or that of the victim’s. “I know what she would’ve said,” Loeffler declared, speculating that her late sister would’ve said, “‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance go anymore.’”

Court documents noted that the woman “suffered severe depression, sleeplessness, and anxiety attacks” as a result of the alleged rape and ensuing harassment. Loeffler, for one, said she still blamed Parker and his roommate for her sister’s death. “These guys sucked the soul and life out of her,” she said.

Read the full story at The New York Times.


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