We have all been rooting for actor, director and producer Nate Parker – whose newest film The Birth of a Nation seems to be creating a new, radical conversation about enslaved Africans and how they revolted against the indisputable tyranny of slavery in the U.S.— for some time now. Some of us became fans when he played the character Henry Lowe in the biographical drama The Great Debaters (2007), directed by and starring Denzel Washington. Others of us, and especially me, fell in love with the actor when he played Neil (who was so loving and patient and kind with Alicia Keys’ character June) in the Gina Prince-Bythewood film The Secret Lives of Bees—which was produced by Jada and Wil Smith in 2008. Or maybe it was Pride (2007), Blood Done Signed My Name (2010), Red Tails (2010), Red Hook Summer (2012), or maybe even 2014’s Beyond the Lights. Regardless of our favorite film by the actor, I’d say we collectedly agreed that he was a great dramatic actor who seemed interested in taking serious, positive roles that painted Black people progressively and powerfully.
But, as always, our fav is problematic.
Parker is not only problematic because he’s made questionable comments about not portraying Black gay men on film in an effort to “preserve the Black man” (as if somehow, magically, Black gay men stop being Black men when they embrace their sexuality), he is problematic because he was accused, and later acquitted, of raping an unconscious woman during his wrestling days at Penn State. According to court documents, Parker invited two of his friends to have sex with the woman—one declined, and the other, listed as a co-writer of Birth of a Nation, was later convicted of rape.
A collective “damn Nate!” echoed throughout the Black community when many of us heard about Parker’s 1999 rape case just a few days ago, but these allegations and charges—along with accusations that Parker, and co-defendant Jean Celestin (who later had his conviction overturned on appeal after the Pennsylvania Superior Court ruled his lawyer was ineffective), allegedly harassed the victim after the assault—are not breaking news. As he’s said before, they’ve been listed on his Wikipedia page for years. Still, to show Parker’s complete indifference towards his accuser at the time, and his refusal to own up his behavior (and, also, to demonstrate how rape culture works), Parker told the victim during a recorded phone call, “I’m not trying to be mean, but, I felt like you put yourself in that situation.”
To be clear: No woman can put herself in a position to be raped. There are no qualifiers to add to that statement; there are no buts that should follow it to make it complex.
Parker is trying his hardest to address this controversy, and has spoken out, especially, since hearing that the woman who accused him of rape committed suicide in 2012. Most recently, he issued a statement via Facebook, writing: “These issues of a women’s right to be safe and of men and women engaging in healthy relationships are extremely important to talk about, however difficult.” Whether Nate Parker is trying hard enough to address his rape case, or the pervasive, misogynist, rape culture that purposely blurs the line of consent regarding sex is still uncertain. But the actor can definitely serve as a cautionary tale about our need to teach our sons about consent and how not to harass, assault and rape women.
As a college professor who teaches mostly 18-20 year olds, I live with the reality that rape is a serious (and dangerous) crime that is heavily ignored (and often covered up) on college campuses. This is why, every semester, when I teach critical thinking and rhetoric to students, I make sure we have at least one conversation about rape and consent. And every semester, to my surprise and dismay, hardly any of my male students (and not enough of my female students) really understand what consent is (or that it is binary, or that it is “conditional on a participant’s ability to revoke their consent”). My students are surprised that their drunk and drugged sexual encounters could very well be considered rape, because they believe that rape is sex performed forcibly by strangers in dark alleys, not with the girls and guys they crush on, flirt with, and take back to their rooms after a night of partying. They are wrong, and they have been failed by the adults in their lives who are charged with sending them out to be safe—and to create safe spaces for others— in the world.
In Parker’s case, his caregivers probably taught him exceptional models for success, because he is undoubtedly successful. His coaches, both sporting and acting, taught him how to play his positions and roles well, because he has made himself a star. But perhaps no one had the conversation with him that having sex with an unconscious young woman, and encouraging friends to have sex with her, is not okay–and could possibly ruin the lives of everyone involved forever.
Teaching our sons consent and how not to rape saves the lives of women, yes, but it absolutely saves our sons lives too. Parker’s life will forever be marred by the controversy of him allegedly being a rapist, even when he makes important, groundbreaking films that can benefit the Black community and its current struggle for human rights. Still, we must admit that Parker’s life has had changes and successes that his accuser’s life never had.
If we are teaching our sons how to talk to police, or how to be great athletes or entrepreneurs, we must also teach them what consent is—otherwise we are not only jeopardizing the safety and success of the girls and women around them, but we are jeopardizing their safety and success as well.