Director talks about rape accuser's suicide

The controversy over a 17-year-old rape accusation comes in the lead-up to the Oct 7 release of The Birth Of A Nation, which Nate Parker (left) writes, directs and stars in.
The controversy over a 17-year-old rape accusation comes in the lead-up to the Oct 7 release of The Birth Of A Nation, which Nate Parker (left) writes, directs and stars in.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON • After a week of intense scrutiny over a 17-year-old rape accusation, including the revelation that his accuser eventually committed suicide, actor and film-maker Nate Parker took to Facebook on Tuesday night to address the growing controversy.

"Over the last several days, a part of my past - my arrest, trial and acquittal on charges of sexual assault - has become a focal point for media coverage, social media speculation and industry conversation," wrote Parker, the writer, director and star of the forthcoming historical drama, The Birth Of A Nation.

He maintained his innocence and said the sex was consensual, but added that he could "understand why so many are concerned and rightfully have questions".

Parker, 36, also said he was "devastated" by the news - broken by Variety magazine on Tuesday afternoon - that the woman who accused him and a friend of raping her had committed suicide at age 30 in 2012.

"I myself just learnt that the young woman ended her life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow," he wrote, noting that he is now married and has five daughters. "I can't tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can't help but think of all the implications this has for her family."

Debate over the case comes in the lead-up to the Oct 7 release of The Birth Of A Nation, a biopic about Virginia slave rebellion leader Nat Turner that has been acclaimed as a 2017 Oscar front-runner.

Fox Searchlight bought the rights to the film at Sundance in January for a record US$17.5 million (S$23.5 million). As Parker began promoting the film last week, however, he began fielding questions about the 1999 accusation.

There were calls to boycott the film and, in Los Angeles, a smattering of posters for the movie, depicting Parker as Turner, were altered to read "Rapist?" by a street artist.

The controversy may worsen: Parker's script uses the rape of Turner's wife by white men as a central story point, although the attack is not explicitly shown.

Parker's team of Hollywood advisers also worried that additional details about the 1999 case, including that his accuser was white, could emerge as new flash points.

A Searchlight statement released last Friday noted Parker's acquittal, reading in part: "We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."

Three people working on the film's release said they had no evidence so far to suggest that the firestorm surrounding Parker had been lit through whispers by competing studios, as sometimes is the case in Hollywood.

The woman's family sounded less convinced in a statement to The New York Times on Tuesday. "We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years."

In comments on Parker's post, people peppered the actor with questions about the incident. "Ah, leaving out a few details, aren't you?" wrote Peggy Smith. "Wasn't there another man charged as well? He was convicted... and he shares credits with you on your new film."

That other man is writer Jean McGianni Celestin. In 1999, he and Parker were 19-year-old roommates at the Pennsylvania State University as well as wrestling teammates. The two were brought to trial in 2001.

In testimony, the woman said that in August 1999, she passed out at Parker's apartment after a night of drinking.

A friend of the men, Tamerlane Kangas, testified that Parker beckoned Kangas and Celestin to join him in having sex with the woman.

After Celestin did, Kangas watched them switch positions with her - Kangas testified that he did not see her move - and left.

In written statements read in court, Parker and Celestin said the woman was lucid and consenting throughout the encounter.

The case was settled for US$17,500. Parker was acquitted of the charges, but Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, although that verdict was later overturned.

The woman's brother, identified only as Johnny to protect his late sister's identity, told Variety that his sister had never recovered from the 1999 incident. "She became detached from reality," he told the magazine.

Once a straight-A student, she dropped out of Penn State and sank into drugs, depression and delusion, friends told The Daily Beast. After several suicide attempts, she was found dead in 2012. The coroner's report said she swallowed 199 sleeping pills.

The woman's other family members asked for privacy, adding that they now sought to protect her teenage son from "this media storm".

WASHINGTON POST, REUTERS, NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 19, 2016, with the headline 'Director talks about rape accuser's suicide'. Print Edition | Subscribe