The Two Faces of Nate Parker

Nate Parker’s Violent Rape Fantasy

In 1831 a slave named Nat Turner declared himself to be the Lord’s avenger; he said that he was guided by secret portents. His band of followers slaughtered more than sixty whites in Southampton County, Virginia. Turner personally hacked a young white girl to death with an ax. Her blood drenched dress was displayed at his trial. His killing crew slaughtered, among others, an infant, a 3-year-old boy who ran to greet them, and an entire classroom of white schoolchildren.

In 2016 a highly sanitized biopic about this spasm of violence was shown at the Sundance Film Festival where it was proclaimed a commercial and critical hit. Ten months later, it opened to a mere $7.1 million, in sixth place with its awards prospects severely diminished, even though it had been viewed in more than 2,100 locations – an unusually wide distribution for a low-budget film. Director Nate Parker had won the top two awards at Sundance, where his film The Birth of a Nation sold for an unheard-of $17.5 million to distributor Fox Searchlight.

Parker had stumbled upon the tale of Nat Turner during an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. His The Birth of a Nation is a sanitized Nat Turner narrative that seems heavily indebted to, The Confessions of Nat Turner, by the fiction writer William Styron. Styron’s fiction had little respect for historical reality. William Styron’s daughter, Alexandra, admitted as much when she explained to The New York Times:

“When my father began researching Turner’s (then little known) rebellion, he relied primarily on a short document published by Turner’s court-appointed lawyer, Thomas Gray. That Nat Turner was indeed a madman – raving, bloodthirsty, beset by apocalyptic visions.

But my father knew that such an unsympathetic extremity of character would be unworkable in his fiction. As quoted in your paper (Book Review Sept. 7, 2008), he set out instead to give Turner ‘dimensions of humanity that were almost totally absent in documentary evidence.’”

In other words, the Nat Turner depicted in Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is an invention of the fiction writer William Styron who was eager to sell lots of books and swell his bank account at the expense of historical truth.

Styron’s daughter goes on to say: “If my father had failed on this account, had drawn Turner as a monster rather than a man, I doubt that many people would have read his books.” So, making money was Styron’s primary objective. To fatten his bank account, William Styron invented an imaginary Nat Turner. This is the fictional Nat Turner who is presented to American schoolchildren as historical truth. Therefore, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is no more than a fusion of Styron’s feel-good fiction and Nate Parker’s personal demons.

So why did The Birth of a Nation flop at the box office? In North America, The Birth of a Nation was expected to gross about $10 million during its opening weekend, but it grossed only $7.1 million and finished in a distant sixth place. African-Americans, who comprise 13% of America’s population, are typically 26% of America’s movie-going population – they are disproportionately consumers of passive visual entertainment. It was they who comprised fully 60% of this film’s first weekend audience. During its second weekend the film grossed only $2.7 million and finished a dismal 10th at the box office. The reason for the film’s nosedive lay in director Nate Parker’s personal history.

The Birth of a Nation, which Mr. Parker directed, co-wrote and produced, lost its momentum as Mr. Parker toured the publicity circuit and fumbled his answers to questions about his past behavior. He was defensive and elusive; he evaded questions at a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival where he abruptly ended interviews when asked about his rape trial. In 1999, Mr. Parker and his close friend, roommate and future collaborator, Jean McGianni Celestin, had been students at Penn State University where they had been accused of raping a white woman who subsequently committed suicide.

The white woman’s suicide in 2012 was made public by Variety. Further disclosures of explicit details from the case sparked anger toward Parker on social media. This wave of negative publicity sent Fox Searchlight, which had paid a record $17.1 million to acquire Parker’s film fantasy, into crisis battle mode. A Los Angeles street artist began scrawling the word “Rapist?” on the film’s promotional posters. Prominent people, such as director Spike Lee, who had endorsed Parker’s film, suddenly fell silent. Members of Parker’s team of Hollywood advisers worried that the disclosure that Parker’s dead accuser was a white woman would diminish ticket sales. To justify the $17.1 million price that Fox Searchlight had paid, the movie would have to earn at least $50 million. But it will be lucky to earn $30 million at the box office, analysts predicted. Under traditional accounting rules, theater owners keep about half the total. Also, Searchlight spent at least $10 million on marketing. The Birth of a Nation would not generate much interest overseas, because it tells an American story and its stars are little known outside North America.

Public support for Parker was virtually nonexistent. The Sundance Institute, which had supported the film through its workshop program and had given Parker its Vanguard Award, did not respond to media inquiries. Nate Parker’s Facebook statement, posted on August 16th, 2016, only inflamed popular passions. It was flooded by more than 500 responses, mostly from angry women who had delved into the details of Parker’s 2001 trial.

The Trial in a Nutshell

In court testimony, Parker’s accuser recalled that in August of 1999 she had passed out in Parker’s apartment after a night of drinking. She said that she had awakened intermittently to find Nate Parker having sexual intercourse with her body and then Jean Celestin’s penis in her mouth. She testified that the following day, “I was in too much pain. I couldn’t walk.”

A friend of Parker and Celestin, Tamerlane Kangas, testified that Parker had beckoned him to join Parker and Celestin in taking advantage of the intoxicated white woman. After Celestin had his pleasure, Kangas testified, Parker and Celestin switched places and began abusing the unconscious woman again. Mr. Kangas said that he did not see the woman make any voluntary moves. Then he left.

In great pain, Parker’s accuser went to her doctor, who concluded that she had been sexually abused. Thereafter, local authorities recorded a telephone conversation between Parker and this woman in which Parker confirmed that it was he and his sidekick Celestin who had taken turns pleasuring themselves with her body. Somehow, Parker was acquitted of rape. Celestin was convicted and given a sentence of six months to one year, which was later raised to two to four years to comply with state sentencing guidelines but he managed to beg a retrial on the grounds of ineffective counsel. His conviction was overturned because the retrial never happened. The emotionally frail woman did not wish to endure the stress of yet another round of wrenching testimony. (In another version of this story, prosecutors declined to retry Celestin because witnesses had scattered across the globe.)

In her formal complaint the woman stated that Parker and Celestin began harassing her after she accused them, a torment that “included Parker and Celestin hiring a private investigator to publically expose her as their accuser, and continued bullying by Parker and his friends outside buildings where she had class.” Parker’s personal “investigator” had roamed about the campus flashing a photograph of the victim to anyone who would take a look. After that, she was subjected to taunts such as, “There goes the white girl crying rape!” Her death certificate noted that she suffered from PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse.

She sued Penn State for not protecting her. The case was settled for $17,500. She dropped out of school a few months later and disclosed that the harassment had prompted two suicide attempts. Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, said that landing at Penn State had given the deceased woman a second chance at life after a difficult childhood. The dead woman’s sister, writing in Variety, said:

“As her sister, the thing that pains me most is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner’s wife is used as a reason to justify Turner’s rebellion. This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape. Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory.”

Gabrielle Union, a lead player in Parker’s flick, told Essence that she understood why people were shunning the film, remarking that as a rape survivor she could not sell it to anyone who was repelled by the controversy. Michael Phillips of The Chicago Tribune observed that, “Even the rape victims of the screenplay have a hard time getting their fair share of the screen time; everything in the story, by design keeps the focus and the anguished close-ups strictly on Parker. He’s a good actor, but not much of a director; the visual style and approach of The Birth of a Nation tries a little of everything and often too much of everything.”

Parker Makes Things Worse

Mr. Parker provoked one damaging headline after another as he spent a week making appearances on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America and The Steve Harvey Show to promote his film. The Hollywood Reporter summed it up with its headline “Nate Parker’s Failed Media Tour: Anger, No Remorse and Oprah’s Advice Ignored.”

In a desperate effort at damage control, Fox Searchlight hired The Glover Park Group and Don McPherson to coach Parker in matters of media management and public relations. Despite this effort, insiders recalled that, “They gave him talking points and he just didn’t execute,” adding : “Parker seemed at times to understand the need to emphasize his sorrow about the devastating impact of the 1999 encounter on the woman at the center of the charges, sources say when the cameras rolled he reverted to his original position.” In his October 2016 interview with 60 Minutes Parker declared that he felt no guilt but conceded that he had done something morally wrong.

The best the liberal media could do to save Nate Parker was to conceal incendiary facts from the public. For example, not once in its very sympathetic interview with Nate Parker did the 60 Minutes interview mention that Parker’s dead accuser was a white woman, as though that were somehow a detail of no significance when, in fact, it was a very significant detail for the millions of Americans who had a grip on American crime statistics.

Nate Parker spent seven years creating his rage-fueled historical drama and it is the interracial gang rape of a black woman that justifies much of the film’s retributive violence. It did not go unnoticed by the public that it was this very same crime for which Nate Parker was put on trial. For armchair psychologists, Parker’s personal history was Christmas and New Years.

Mr. Parker himself delivers a fierce performance as Nat Turner. In Parker’s reimagination of Turner’s life, the slave child’s intelligence is recognized and nurtured; he is taken into the master’s house where he lives a sheltered life, is schooled in the gospels, eventually becoming a hired-out preacher-for-pay to mollify restive slaves. In this capacity Turner witnesses privations and cruelties which open his eyes to the hypocrisy of using the Bible to sanctify violence against blacks and the futility of words alone.

But in a wildly hypocritical reversal of logic, Nate Parker, as Nat Turner, uses hyperbolic biblical language to justify his spasm of homicidal violence against all those sleeping white Virginians. This contradiction renders Parker’s seven-years-in-the-making drama a moral muddle.

What had attracted Nate Parker and his sidekick and co-writer Jean Celestin to the mythic tale of Nat Turner, a man who had declared himself to be a divinely-inspired avenger charged with a mission from God to exterminate the white race? The ignition point of William Styron’s 1969 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel is the brutal rape of Turner’s mother by white men. In Nate Parker’s equally fictionalized reimagining of the Turner tale, it is the gang rape of Turner’s wife by white men that moves him to homicidal fury. In both of these fictions it is white-on-black sexual assault that imbues Nat Turner with a burning hatred of white people.

In Styron’s fiction a young Nat Turner is sold to an impoverished white preacher named Reverend Eppes, who is a filthy, disgusting, drooling homosexual who lusts after young boys. This creepy homosexual is eager for Nat to “pleasure” him. Nat finds the reverend loathsome and shies away. Disappointed, the hideous homosexual sells Nat to some cruel redneck farmers.

It is worth noting that none of this appears in Nate Parker’s fictional account of Nat Turner. To have any hope at all that his film would ever be shown in theaters, Parker knew that he must rinse Styron’s narrative of any unappealing depictions of homosexuals. No upstart independent filmmaker is allowed inside the sacred precincts of liberal Hollywood unless his work is perfectly aligned with this morning’s gay political agenda. Nate Parker dutifully toed the line.

In a 2014 interview with BET, when asked if he would ever consider playing the part of a gay character, Parker closed the door on that possibility. He declared that in order to “preserve the black man” he would decline such roles. He chided Hollywood for offering black men portrayals of “men with questionable sexuality” – roles that require dresses and duct tape, as he put it.

Parker Decides to Go Tribal

In his interview with Filmmaker magazine, Nate Parker declared that, “Not only did [D.W. Griffith’s 1915 The Birth of a Nation] motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I’ve reclaimed the title and repurposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America.”

It was Parker’s not-so-subtle way of alerting the Oscar Academy and the world at large that if his film was not showered with accolades, the snub could only be the consequence of Hollywood’s enduring racist roots and not a comment about his first-time filmmaking.

The real Hollywood had hoped that Parker’s film would be a corrective to the previous year’s #OscarsSoWhite dustup. Parker’s raging The Birth of a Nation had been positioned to diminish criticism of an industry long chided for sidelining minorities.

To save its sinking investment, Fox Searchlight pivoted to a campaign of micro-targeting selected schools and African-American churches. The opening-weekend audience for the film was 60% black – a percentage close to five times the percentage of blacks in America. This was definitely a black fantasy flick and Fox Searchlight had shed its shyness about saying so in plain English.

As it struggled with emerging revelations from Parker’s rape trial, the studio quietly hosted an unusually expansive series private screenings of Parker’s film for groups such as The Congressional Black Caucus and the Conference of National Black Churches. Aja Brown, the mayor of Compton, California, hosted an advanced screening at a local theater. Studio operatives distributed film-narrative guides to 80,000 black churches, along with suggestions for weaving the film and its themes into black sermons. Classroom study materials were offered to 30,000 public school teachers.

In a desperate effort to save its over-rated, over-priced, and sinking entertainment property, Fox Searchlight began running hastily produced 30-second television ads that showcased emotionally-charged scenes from the film which were artfully interwoven with images harvested from Black Live Matter rallies. Fox Searchlight rushed out new posters depicting a hooded Klansman on horseback. These shameless racial provocateurs also published promotional posters graphically depicting Nate Parker, as Nat Turner, being strangled by a noose fashioned from an American flag. Fox wisely confined this poster to markets in foreign countries.

Fox Searchlight suspected that their incendiary piece of historical fiction might incite blacks to violence, just as the bygone D.W. Griffith flick had incited some ignorant whites long ago. They were so concerned that they funded special screenings and polled selected focus groups. Would Nate Parker’s violent racial fantasy be a call to black aggression? The mass murder of five police officers at a black demonstration the previous July had given Fox Searchlight a clue. The black gunman had set out to kill as many white police officers as he possibly could. This maniac was a disquieting echo of Nat Turner.

The Unicorn of Sex Crimes

Nate Parker’s unimaginative exploitation of a cliché gang rape scenario to get the blood of his black audience boiling was shameless. In truth, the rape of any black woman by a white man is as rare as the rarest of sexual perversions. U.S. Justice Department rape statistics are based on crime reports and first-person victim statements. Women who have been beaten, bloodied and raped do not lie when describing their stranger attackers.

The most striking truth to emerge from the mountain of first-person victim accounts is the extreme rarity of white-on-black rape. For example, for each of the eleven years from 1997 to 2008 the total number of white rapists of black women was 0.0 – zero point zero. White interracial rapists were statistically non-existent. During those same eleven years, black males forcibly raped thousands of white women each and every year. Therefore, the rape of black women by white men is pretty much a propaganda device of Black Nationalist and white liberal political theater. Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation is definitely a piece of political theater.

Before Nate Parker’s political film made liberals swoon at the Sundance Film Festival, the two most notorious exploitations of the white man as Boogeyman Rapist were the Tawana Brawley and the Crystal Mangum rape hoaxes, both of which sent “progressives” into paroxysms of demented hyperbole. In both cases, dozens of innocent white men were slandered and abused. In both cases, self-righteous white liberals and black radicals ranted brainlessly for months about “white privilege” and a crime that is virtually nonexistent – the rape of black women by white men.

Rape expresses the rage of the failed male; it bespeaks the absence of a confident and complete masculine psyche. It’s clear from the crime statistics that white men, as a group, are not carrying a grudge against black women. So why are so many black males so resentful of white women?

Crushing Black Manhood

Could the rage of black males be the consequence of the marginalization and minimization of black males by our liberal welfare bureaucracy? Consider this . . .

The black family had weathered slavery. After emancipation, black freemen struggled to create intact Christian families, and succeeded. Even during the Great Depression, when black unemployment was twice that of white Americans, fully eighty percent of black children were living in intact, two-parent, homes. Therefore, it wasn’t slavery that ruined black family unity; it had to be something that afflicted American blacks at some time after the Great Depression. The Second World War brought fuller employment. The post-war Eisenhower years encouraged family unity and a return to conventional normalcy.

The black family didn’t begin its downward slide to dissolution, with 70% of black children born into fatherless homes, until after an expanding liberal welfare bureaucracy, seeking dependable voters for liberal Democrat candidates, began the insidious and ruinous business of subsidizing the breakup of black families with the lure of taxpayer money.

Once unwed mothers were guaranteed an adequate and reliable stipend and were not required to reveal the identity of the fathers of their children, the economic need for responsible black fathers flew out the window. Responsible black fathers were still desperately needed to create and sustain healthy black families and to mentor their sons in responsible manhood, but liberal materialists were determined to seduced black women into welfare dependency and robotic Democrat Party allegiance, all in the name of compassion.

The consequence of all this liberal “compassion” is that we now live in an America populated by millions of well-educated and accomplished white women who daily knock elbows with black males whose prospects for fulfillment have been severely diminished. Eighty percent of children raised by unwed mothers are raised in poverty with diminished educational prospects. Single motherhood is a formula for poverty. Without fathers, boys are not mentored in the behavioral code of mature manhood; they are not mentored in manly restraint.

Altogether, this social mix is combustible. When so many black males feel over-mastered and out-performed by white females in everyday encounters, it is inevitable that shame and resentment and frustration will bring anger to the fore. These angry and frustrated transgressors lack the internal guardrails of mature manhood.

Nate Parker is the child of a 17-year-old unwed mother. His parents never married. His father, with whom he had occasional contact, died of cancer when Nate was eleven years old. His mother and four sisters were his classic black matriarchy. He picked up the name Parker from one of the men his mother eventually married. Jean Celestin’s early history remains a closely guarded mystery.

Parker was suspended from the Penn State wrestling team after he had been accused of rape. He was reinstated in 2000 while facing trial, but within weeks another female student (race unknown) accused Parker of exposing his genitals to her. She did not press criminal charges and Penn State let the matter slide. One of the three men prosecuted in the Jerry Sandusky child molestation scandal, Tim Curley, was instrumental in shaping the way Nate Parker’s indecent exposure incident was managed.

Final Reflections

In Nate Parker’s film Nat Turner is inflamed by exactly the same motivation that drove the Klansmen in D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent screen epic: protecting women’s virtue. Parker fires up his audience with two rapes of black women by white men, neither of which is historically documented. In other words, these rapes are fictional dramatic devices.

Mel Gibson mentored Nate Parker and coached Parker on his script. Parker has said that his favorite film is Gibson’s Braveheart. Parker acknowledged Gibson’s contributions in his film’s credits. Parker’s film had re-imagined Nat Turner as some kind of Sir William Wallace of the antebellum cotton belt.

Parker’s film seems less concerned with understanding Turner, slavery or the Confederate South than in aggrandizing Nate Parker. It’s a kitschy compendium of straight male signifiers. The whipping scene in Birth mimics the one in Glory that won Denzel Washington an Oscar Award, complete with Nate Parker aping Denzel’s gestures and vocal tics. The rest of Parker’s cast exists to inspire and embolden Parker’s superhero rendition of the hallucinating and homicidal Nat Turner. There is only room for one fully developed character – the one portrayed by the super egoist Nate Parker.

Mr. Parker had hitched a ride on the coattails of other directors who had pumped the topic of slavery for all it was worth. In 2013 alone, there were seven feature films about slavery. Most notable was Steve McQueen’s Twelve Years a Slave, which won the Oscar for Best Picture.

But Parker’s The Birth of a Nation most closely resembles Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained from 2012. Just like Tarantino’s protagonist Django, played by Jamie Foxx, Parker’s Turner is all about blood-drenched retribution. Tarantino’s flick was the more honest because it shamelessly borrowed the stylizations of the spaghetti Western and made no pretense of being high art or historically accurate. While Tarantino recast slave clichés in the mode of the spaghetti Western and blaxploitation B-movies, Parker went the superhero route with a protracted origin narrative in which the hero, Parker himself, is destined for greatness, but restrained, only to emerge as an incandescent supernatural force. The provocation for Parker’s dramatic violence is the rape of Turner’s wife Nancy and the rape of the wife of a friend, both of which are fictional dramatic devices. The women in his film are mere incitements to violence. The climactic action is all Marvel Comics bravado.

In the end, Nate Parker had produced just another speechifying avenger, complete with visions of angels sporting Halloween costume wings. At Sundance he had bragged that his flick was “a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country,” but it was mostly a showcase for Nate Parker, who managed to quench the fire of his Nat Turner narrative with his tone-deaf disrespect for the stories of women who had suffered at the hands of men. As he admitted to Ebony magazine: “I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid.”

Thomas Clough
Copyright 2017
June 4, 2017