nate parker-image-awards

Exclusive: Nate Parker on Campus Incident, Consent and Toxic Male Culture

In a one-on-one interview, the 'Birth of a Nation' star gets candid about rape culture and shares what he’d tell his 19-year-old self about consent

by Britni Danielle, August 27, 2016

Comments
nate parker-image-awards

Our exclusive interview with Nate Parker is one of our most-read stories of the year.

“Can I go off script real quick?”

That was how Nate Parker broke his silence on the growing firestorm surrounding his 1999 rape allegation. After giving a pair of interviews to Variety and Deadline earlier this month that seemed to only add fuel to the controversy, Parker has stayed mum, save for an Aug. 16 Facebook post addressing the incident.

After the American Film Institute canceled a Birth of a Nation screening and Q&A session with the filmmaker last week, Parker took to the stage Friday night at the Merge Summit in Los Angeles, speaking with TV journalist Jawn Murray, in his first public appearance since all hell broke loose.

From the beginning, the crowd was on his side. As the credits rolled on Birth of a Nation, Parker entered the theater to a standing ovation. One woman even yelled, “We love you!” as he strode to the front. After answering a question about why he chose to make “yet another slave film,” Parker addressed the controversy head-on.

“I think it’s very difficult to talk about injustice and not deal with what’s happening right now,” the 36-year-old actor and director told the audience. “When I was first met with the news that this part of my past had come up, my knee-jerk reaction was selfish. I wasn’t thinking about even the potential hurt of others; I was thinking about myself.”

For the next 12 minutes, Parker discussed learning about things like toxic masculinity and male privilege, while explaining that he isn’t upset the rape allegation has been resurrected.

“This is happening for a very specific reason,” Parker explained, referencing God throughout the conversation. “To be honest, my privilege as a male, I never thought about it. I’m walking around daring someone to say something or do something that I define is racist or holding us back, but never really thinking about male culture and the destructive effect it’s having on our community. “

It’s easy to root for Nate Parker. He’s fiery, committed to a cause higher than himself, and he seems to really love uplifting Black people. Moreover, he risked his entire career, investing his own money and threatening to give up acting, to make a film about Nat Turner. And it paid off. Parker’s hard work made him the talk of the Sundance Film Festival where he sold his film for a record $17.5 million.

To paraphrase Tyra Banks, we were all rooting for him.

But that was before the rape allegation resurfaced, and before Parker’s admittedly self-centered comments, stating, “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.” That was before most people read the court documents, or found out Parker’s accuser killed herself in 2012. After the countless articles and op-eds and social media conversations, rooting for Parker became a complicated notion at best.

Through it all, Parker remained silent—a fact that only heightened the speculation that he was hiding out. But after the panel Parker agreed to give EBONY a one-on-one interview that would last about 10 minutes.

What happened instead was that Parker talked for 25 minutes about consent, male privilege, and how he feels about being called a rapist.

EBONY.com: You started out tonight addressing the controversy, and you talked a lot about male culture and toxic masculinity. So I want to kind of compare. What, at 19, did you know about consent?

Nate Parker: To be honest, not very much. It wasn’t a conversation people were having. When I think about 1999, I think about being a 19-year-old kid, and I think about my attitude and behavior just toward women with respect objectifying them. I never thought about consent as a definition, especially as I do now. I think the definitions of so many things have changed.

EBONY.com: So how does it differ for you?

Nate Parker: You mean like where I am right now?

EBONY.com: Yeah, as 36-year-old Nate.

Nate Parker: Put it this way, when you’re 19, a threesome is normal. It’s fun. When you’re 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about–for me, back then–if you can get a girl to say yes, you win.

EBONY.com: Yes to, like, hanging out? Or yes to, like, sex?

Nate Parker: If I can be just honest about it, just being down. Back then, when I was young and we were out being dogs it was about is she down? You think she down?

EBONY.com: Was that a question you would actually pose to her?

Nate Parker: No.

EBONY.com: So it was kinda like an assumption you were working on?

Nate Parker: Back then, it felt like…I’ll say this: at 19, if a woman said no, no meant no. If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? If I touch her breast and she’s down for me to touch her breast, cool. If I touch her lower, and she’s down and she’s not stopping me, cool. I’m going to kiss her or whatever. It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent.

Let me be the first to say, I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid. I knew that no meant no, but that’s it. But, if she’s down, if she’s not saying no, if she’s engaged–and I’m not talking about, just being clear, any specific situation, I’m just talking about in general.

I think that’s a tough question, because the 2016 lens, even now in a relationship, I feel like I’m way more attentive and curious as to what my wife wants, if she feels like it, her body language. I’ll ask my wife.

EBONY.com: You’re talking about sex?

Nate Parker: Yeah, it’s like, do you wanna have sex tonight? No? Okay.

EBONY.com: But that wasn’t…

Nate Parker: No, asking that question outright when I was younger? No. I just want to preface this all, I keep saying it, I’m learning, still. I’m 36-years-old and I’m learning about definitions that I should have known when I started having sex.

EBONY.com: You mentioned that your initial comments about the resurrection of this incident were self-centered, and from an emotional place on your behalf. So do you understand why people are struggling with…

Nate Parker: Absolutely! I understand now, but I was speaking from a standpoint of ignorance.

EBONY.com: Two weeks ago, you mean?

Nate Parker: Yeah. Well, when you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s like, if I don’t know how to swim and two weeks later I know how to swim, I know how to swim. Honestly, when I started reading them comments I had to call some people and say, What did I do wrong? What did I say wrong?

I called a couple of sisters that know that are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity, and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because 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.

I just really wanted to know more about what I was talking about. People were saying, why isn’t he speaking soon? Cuz I still didn’t know nothing. I don’t want…this ain’t the hype for me.

EBONY.com: Because, you know, now it comes off like, two weeks after the fact, the criticism is up and now you have to say something because…

Nate Parker: Let’s just put it like this: if a person was accused of being a racist when he was young–he said some racially insensitive thing or someone had him on tape calling someone the n-word or whatever–and then you fast forward and he feels, Oh, back then I didn’t say this or that. He’s not thinking about the person that he hurt when he said what he said, or however it came out, or the effects that it could have had. He’s not thinking about it. He’s thinking about his own self and how he feels.

EBONY.com: So how does it feel when people say, “Nate Parker is a rapist?” Not racist, obviously, but rapist. And…what do you do with that?

Nate Parker: I don’t know how to respond…if you’re asking me about…

EBONY.com: I’m asking you how does that feel to have that…

Nate Parker: I’ll say this: I don’t want it to be about me. If you’re asking me about a particular event, that’s one thing. But I can see that there are a lot of people that have been hurt, a lot of people that are survivors. I’m finding out people in my own circle that are survivors that I didn’t even know. There are people on my film that are survivors that carry that pain, and I had to call and talk to them all, like, how you feel about what’s happening? What do I need me to do? What do I need to get?

All I can do is seek the information that’ll make me stronger, that’ll help me overcome my toxic masculinity, my male privilege, because that’s something you never think about. You don’t think about other people. It’s the same thing with White Supremacy. Trying to convince someone that they are a racist or they have White Privilege–if it’s in the air they breathe and the culture supports them, sometimes they never have to think about it at all. I recognize as a man there’s a lot of things that I don’t have to think about. But I’m thinking about them now.

People may say that, “Oh, now is good timing.” I don’t know what to say to them except I’m trying. I’m trying to transform behaviors and ideas that have never been challenged in certain ways in my life. I’m not the kid that I was at 19.

EBONY.com: So, how would 36-year-old Nate classify that particular incident with you, Jean [Celestin], and the girl?

Nate Parker: I’ll say this, I think that they are more things than the law. I think there is having a behavior that is disrespectful to women that goes unchecked, where your manhood is defined by sexual conquests, where you trade stories with your friends and no one checks anyone. At 19, that was normal. As a 36-year-old man, if I looked at my 19-year-old self as my son, if I could have grabbed him earlier before this incident, or even just going to college. Because for me, it’s about this incident, but it’s about a culture that I never took the time to try to understand. I never examined my role in male culture, in hyper masculinity. I never examined it, nobody ever called me on it.

So if I’m 36 and I have my 19-year-old self, I’m pulling him to the side, and saying, “Listen bruh, throwing on your Timbs and your fitted hat and strolling campus trying to get a girl to say yes, or going to the club hoping you bring a girl home, that’s not the way to go about healthy relationships. You need to step back. You need to think about how that affects you, how it affects them, how it affects the women in your life.”

The crazy thing is a lot of people–a lot of men, if I’m just speaking for myself–don’t really start thinking about the effect of hyper-masculinity and false definitions of what it means to be a man until you get married or until you have kids. Because then all of sudden you have something to protect. In all actuality, we got to do better about preparing our men for their interactions with women.

EBONY.com: And I think consent is a big issue. You have a daughter who just went to college and sexual culture on campus, and drinking culture…what kind of conversation did you have with her going off to college? And have you talked to her about this?

Nate Parker: I have talked to her about it all. I mean there’s a 1999 lens and then there’s a 2016 lens, and I think there’s a hyper-sensitivity–as there should be–to what’s happening around campuses, what’s happening with this behavior, that because if it’s not addressed it’s perpetuated. I was talking to a young lady in my cast who said, “When women go to college there’s this mentality that boys will be boys. When women go to college there’s this idea of, well don’t get raped.”

EBONY.com: Yeah, you have blue lights, and tell your friends…

Nate Parker: All of these mechanisms to almost prolong the inevitable, or something. I never thought about that. I never thought about it. It’s not my reality. When I walk home at night I don’t have to worry about anything. But when a woman walks home at night she gotta think about a lot of different things.

I’m trying to absorb a lot of information. I watched The Hunting Ground. I read Roxane Gay’s open letter, I read Maiysha Kai’s open letter, I read Demetria D’Oyley. Just to really…what do I need to learn about the situation? If I’m really down…if I’m really serious about changing my attitude, if I’m really serious that those comments are wrong, then what do I need to be feeling? And how do I get to that place that there’s an assault against women?

So I sat my daughter down and I talked about this specific situation, it wasn’t the first time because when she became a certain age I talked about it to her anyway. But I said you know, I gotta look at the situation as an opportunity to grow and become more empathetic and more sensitive to issues to that are outside of my everyday, and I don’t want to send you to college and say, “Be careful and watch out.” I said that, for one, when you’re in a relationship with someone you have to be in control of that relationship and you have to be as open as you can about everything, straight up, out the gate. We have a very unique relationship because I don’t ever want her to feel like she can’t come to me, so I allow her to talk to me about everything, which is hard. Being a woman in 2016 if very different, imagine being a woman 20 years ago, and when we talk about consent, maybe 20 years from now we’ll know things about consent and examine it from a different perspective than we are now.

I’ll say this, this whole situation I’m approaching from a standpoint of humility. I’m sorry for all the women who are survivors who felt hurt by my words because they were insensitive and they were nonchalant.

EBONY.com: I think the thing that could have perhaps handled this differently is if you came off more contrite from the jump. Like you said, if you had more empathy from the beginning, or if it wasn’t as self-focused…

Nate Parker: But you know what, I was…

EBONY.com: So why did you give those two interviews first? Because I feel like I had read some articles [about the rape case], but it wasn’t like this thing, until…

Nate Parker: This is hard; I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this. Not everyone has the best intentions. I thought I was giving the interview, at the time of those two interviews–and one really just bit off the other–I didn’t know the status of the women. I didn’t know. I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. I was acting as if I was the victim because I felt like, my only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know. I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second.

You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was being even arrogant. And learning about her passing shook me, it really did. It really shook me.

EBONY.com: Had you thought about her and this incident over the last 17 years?

Nate Parker: No, I had not. I hadn’t thought about it at all.

EBONY.com: That’s going to come off very…privileged.

Nate Parker: It is! Listen to me when I say I’m understanding that I’m dealing with a problem, like an addiction. Just like you can be addicted to White Supremacy and all of the benefits, you can be addicted to male privilege and all of the benefits that comes from it. It’s like someone pointing at you and you have a stain on your shirt and you don’t even know it.

I’m a work in progress. I’m trying to be better. I feel remorse for all the women that are survivors that felt I was being insensitive because I was. And I want to have a better understanding of how I can be more of an ally, if they’ll accept me. There will be people who won’t accept me, and that’s okay. All I can do is say that I stand for justice and really learn more about this issue so I can be a better ally of this issue.

EBONY.com: I think people might come to a place–maybe not of acceptance–but you mentioned tonight that you want to be a leader. So I think if you took this situation and went to campuses to talk to men and women around sex, drinking, and consent, people would come to see that you’re trying, that you’re genuine.

Nate Parker: This is the first step. You will know my commitment by the next few steps.

EBONY.com: Like a lot of Black men who are “woke,” you’re very comfortable talking about race, and for people like me (Black women), we have to be well-versed in both race and gender…

Nate Parker: How many Black men you know that are talking about gender?

EBONY.com: There are some.

Nate Parker: But how many that have the platform? Like I said, this thing has resurfaced and people are like, “This is weird, this timing…” and I said, you know what? It’s here now.

EBONY.com: So you’re not the conspiracy theory guy? Like, they’re just trying to kill this story about Nat Turner?

Nate Parker: No. I’m like, it’s here now. And I’m going to celebrate Nat Turner and if he’s a leader who inspires me, I gotta face injustices in my own community. I gotta face my past, whether it be 17 years ago or 17 minutes ago. I gotta be able to look at it and say, well, you know, I have engaged in hyper-male culture, and I’m learning about it, and I’m learning how I can change and help young boys and young men change.

Race I’ve been studying since I knew there was a problem with race and that I was Black and something was wrong. Gender, is very new to me. All I can say is this is something that I’m going to take hold of and pray about it. I’m going to soul-search, I’m going to talk to people like you, and I’m going to talk to people who know more than I do. Because when it comes to race, what do I do? I call people like Harry Belafonte. So when you talk about Roxane Gay, when you talk about Maiysha Kai, I’m open to criticism. I don’t want to be a leader that is one-dimensional or two-dimensional because he’s not willing to be open.

EBONY.com: A lot of people are going to say, hmmm, he wants to be a leader. Because nobody really says they want to be a leader, but you’re saying this in terms of leading change?

Nate Parker: Yeah. Every role I’ve ever taken, I said I want to be clear I’m not going to do anything that denigrates our experience, that’s going to speak power into our community. So when this thing surfaced…”healing comes from honest confrontation,” Maiysha Kai said that. And you can print this, I took those words to heart. She’s right. So I’m going to honestly confront this. This is all I can do. I’m not perfect, I’m a flawed man, but I’m willing to try to get better, I’m willing to listen. I’m willing to take input from people who are living it everyday.

So like you said, it’s been two weeks, but it’s been a long two weeks. But I refuse to look at this like a victim. I’m going to look at this as someone, okay, this is a flaw in me that needs to be changed, something that needs to be dealt with. And it’s bigger than some small technicality. There are people in my life, and people outside my life, that need to know there are people at least talking about it. If I can use my platform to affect change in gender, as I can in race, then I think I can have an impact. This is not the end-all, it’s a work in progress. And I say that humbly as a person that has literally been humbled into really reassessing his ideas and thoughts.

One last thing, and I want to be clear on this, this is very, very important. Homophobia. I said some comments in 2014 and regardless of the actual words, in the same way conversations around consent have changed, conversation around homosexuality and LGBT…I’m continuously learning more and more. Five years ago, two years ago, ten years ago…just like some people think racism is if you say the n-word, so homophobia is if you call someone [he abruptly ended the sentence.] The fact that I said I wouldn’t wear a dress, or that I’m not interested in gay roles, I can see now that was being exclusionary. It was being insensitive, and it was being homophobic. And guess what? I’m sorry. I’m sorry for everyone who ever read similar comments or just got wind that something was said. I’m growing in my understanding in my relationships with [the] LGBT [community]. I had to ask people I know like, is this homophobic? A couple people said yeah. And I was like, oh.

So every day I’m reassessing what I’ve been taught against what I see, and the man I need to be if I’m going to call myself a leader of anybody. So like I said, for the women out there that I’ve hurt with my male privilege, I’m sorry. For the men that identify with whatever they identify with, I retract my comments, and I’m sorry. I hope they can forgive me for those attitudes and behaviors. And like I said, this is a step of one of many, many, many, many steps I need to take toward a lot of things that will refine me and make me better suited for leading anyone out of any place of injustice to a place of justice. I got work to do. I got a lot of work to do within myself.

 
Stay in the Know
Sign up for the Ebony Newsletter