Let’s Not Pretend Nate Parker Has Redeemed Himself
In January, Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation — which he wrote, directed, produced, and starred in — sold to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million. Two weeks ago, ahead of a major press tour for the movie, Variety released an interview with Parker in which they address a little-known fact about his past: Parker was accused of rape during his time at Penn State back in 1999.
The accuser claims that Parker had sex with her when she was blackout drunk and then invited his friend to do the same. Transcripts of their phone conversation shortly after are damning, with Parker lying about wearing a condom and the woman begging to know if anyone else had sex with her without her knowledge that night. Court documents not only detail this incident, but also describe Parker and his friend harassing the accuser for months on campus in response to their removal from the wrestling team over the accusations. Not only did Parker and his friend break multiple court mandates not to see the accuser, they got other students to harass and scream sexual expletives at her as well. This went on for some time, and Parker was acquitted of the charges primarily because of the fact that the accuser had consensual sex with him earlier that night. His friend, Jean Celestin, who also co-wrote The Birth of a Nation, was convicted but won a later appeal when the accuser refused to testify a second time.
All of this trauma affected the woman in countless ways, her brother reveals. And after several suicide attempts stemming from the incident itself, she died by suicide in 2012, leaving behind a son.
In the initial Variety interview that broke the news to the larger public, Parker stated that, “Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.” He went on in the interview, to which he brought his 6-year-old daughter, to talk about his family and his status as a church man. Conversation around the interview was swift and polarizing.
Many criticized Parker for his actions and his comments, and things didn’t get better when Parker posted a Facebook status doubling down on his innocence. Several people advocated for a boycott of the movie, and the American Film Institute has already canceled its planned screening of the film.
As some rape apologists defended Parker and other condemned him outright, others asked good questions about how a restorative justice framework could help bring healing to the situation without discarding Parker altogether. If Nate Parker is indeed a rapist, what methods other than incarceration do we have for his restitution and rehabilitation? What does Nate Parker need to do in order for us to accept him and his work in our community?
On August 27, in an interview with Ebony magazine, Parker spoke about his previous insensitivity toward sexual assault survivors, his new knowledge around consent, and his pledge to fight back against toxic masculinity. Many praised his comments as a sign of change and a pathway toward restoration.
But Parker’s newfound claim to ally status isn’t restorative justice, and his most recent comments actually harmed survivors more than they healed. In the same interview in which Parker spoke about being an advocate for women, he continued to harm his alleged victim even in her death.
Parker’s statements, regardless of their intent, do not get to the root of the harm he caused. Instead the incident is shrouded in Parker’s newfound “social justice” language, language he unsurprisingly admits he learned from Black women.
There seems to be a misconception that restorative justice is merely a less punitive alternative to the violent systems of incarceration in this country. But the truth is, restorative justice calls for an overhaul of our whole system of determining guilt and redress, and it demands higher standards from the community. Within restorative justice, the entire community, not one lone and disconnected court, is responsible for addressing the situation and fostering the space for repentance, restitution, safety, and healing.
The most important part of restorative justice is that it is a victim-centered practice. While the healing of both the victim and the abuser are goals, restorative justice centers the needs and the safety of the victim as a primary concern.
So if we are going to advocate for the use of restorative justice for someone like Parker, in the hopes that he may be redeemed, then we have to have an approach that is victim-centered and does not revolve around focusing on the needs and desires of the abuser. If Parker is to be redeemed at all, both he and we need to be able to prioritize the feelings, perspectives, needs, and safety of the alleged victim as we take steps forward.
But pursuing restorative justice in this case is made murky by the fact that the other party is no longer alive. I’ve written before about the complications of restorative justice when one party is no longer around to participate in the process, but I think there are ways to engage in restorative justice principles even when the victim can no longer state what that process looks like for them.
Which brings me back to Parker’s highly-praised Ebony interview. If this was a moment for Nate Parker to take a step in the right direction and to be willing to participate in a restorative justice process, his victim would be centered and his present actions toward his alleged victim would be the litmus test.
It the beginning of the interview, Parker addresses his lack of knowledge around consent when he was in college, and claims to understand consent now in the context of his marriage. Alarmingly, though, he never identifies how he disregarded consent in the actual incident at hand. If Parker truly learned what consent means, wouldn’t he be able to clearly identify where he and his friend did not have consent in their encounter? Instead, he refers to this incident as a “threesome” — citing this and his “player” attitude toward women as the core issue.
It seems like it might get better when he acknowledges his callousness in previous interviews:
“I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.”
Parker talks about not realizing that he was harming sexual assault survivors in his previous interviews and even goes so far as to admit that there were people close to him who he did not know were survivors. But he never once refers to his own accuser as a survivor. In fact, beyond that short confession that he did not consider her in his initial interviews, he doesn’t mention her at all.
The fact that Parker completely disregards his alleged victim even in light of his newfound jargon is heightened by what he says when asked if he had thought about the incident in the past 17 years: “No, I had not. I hadn’t thought about it at all.”
He then rounds out the interview by citing the Black women he has talked to and by pledging to become a leader and an ally in the fight against “toxic masculinity” and “male privilege.” He ends the interview by apologizing for some homophobic comments he made in the past.
Parker did a lot of things in this interview, some of which were good and some of which were bad, and many of which sounded conveniently staged. But what he did not do was the one thing he absolutely HAD to accomplish given restorative justice principles. He failed to really talk about his accuser or the specific harm he caused to her. What’s worse is that he actively undermined victims everywhere.
Parker isn’t a man who has learned the error of his ways. He’s a very privileged man who did a drive-by of gender justice terminology with the Black women he had access to, only to utterly disrespect his accuser in the face of very real career ramifications for him. Throughout the entire interview he continued to center himself, as he did in previous interviews, and when he wasn’t the center he spoke clumsily instead about abstract notions of “male privilege” and “being an ally.” Parker talked a good talk on the surface, but the receipts do not reveal a man who is any less dangerous to women.
Parker’s interview is a display of buzzwords, not of understanding. His failure to apply the things he was talking about to his specific case, and the fact that he continued to disrespect his accuser throughout this same interview, either reveals great ignorance or great ego, and likely both at the same time. Our praising him for such superficial understanding isn’t engaging in restorative justice, but instead accepting cheap fancy terminology instead of true transformation.
Nate Parker neither made any steps toward restitution with his alleged victim, nor displayed any true understanding of his wrongdoings. He did not understand that the central allegation was not that he “said some insensitive things,” but that he raped and harassed a human being. In the midst of failing to make any substantive progress, he undermined and erased the woman in the narrative, and in doing so displayed all the things he claimed to now be going against.
Parker’s interview is not progress, it’s terrifying. It’s terrifying that he still doesn’t know what rape is. It’s terrifying that he thinks consent is about chivalry. It’s terrifying that he can apologize to everyone except his alleged victim. It’s terrifying that on his third attempt, he still can’t stop centering himself. It’s terrifying that he views what happened as a threesome. It’s terrifying that he might teach young boys about consent when he clearly does not understand it himself. It’s terrifying that he has a platform to passive-aggressively taunt his alleged victim even in her grave.
But more terrifying than anything is how quickly we are willing to accept hollow words instead of demanding substantive change. I’m more bothered by the fact that we are so allured by beautiful language, that we didn’t seem to much care if this accused abuser did the work of restorative justice or not. I’m bothered that we live in a world where we privilege jargon over understanding, and where rapists have to do very little to be accepted.
So no, I won’t be going to see The Birth of a Nation, and I won’t be talking about Nate Parker as a “changed man.” Instead I will care for the survivors in my own life and continue to talk about Nate Parker’s accuser, someone everyone seems very content to forget.
Restorative justice is messy and difficult, but it is not a call to lower our standards. Instead it is a call for us all to take responsibility for the safety and healing of one another, a responsibility that requires deep discernment and principled consideration.
We need a world where victims and rapists can be healed, a world that is only possible through radical victim-centered action and a humbling of ourselves. It would be both ironic and a shame if the words created to give language to our oppression became the very thing that hindered us from change.
Lead image: flickr/Athena LeTrelle