With the October release of the highly controversial The Birth of a Nation right around the corner, there's been much discussion over whether or not people should pay money to see a film written, directed, and starring a man who was accused of rape in 1999 at 19 years old and was then acquitted in 2001. I'm referring to Nate Parker, who while attending Penn State University in the late '90s faced rape charges along with his roommate, Jean Celestin (the film's co-writer whose sexual assault conviction was overturned after his accuser chose not to testify again for 2005 retrial), from an 18-year-old woman who claimed she was unconscious and never consented to sex with the men. Sadly, she committed suicide in 2012. This story is something that continues to follow Parker's 2016 film, and now, one of the stars of the film is speaking out and actually turning the controversy into what can be viewed as a positive conversation. Gabrielle Union commented on The Birth of a Nation in a powerful essay she wrote for The Los Angeles Times, which was published on Friday.
As for Parker, he's commented on the controversy and the rape accusations in several interviews. He told Variety in August, "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. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is — I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now." Bustle has reached out to Parker regarding Union's essay, but has not yet heard back.
First, let me say that Union's op-ed is one of the most well-written celebrity essays I have ever read. Please be sure to take the time to read it in its entirety. Not only does she make a long list of great points about rape culture and consent, but hearing her shed light on Parker and his project makes it a must-read. In the film, Union plays a woman who was raped, and it is a role that hits close to home for the 43-year-old actor because, as she explains in her piece, 24 years ago she was "raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store where [she] was then working."
When she heard about Parker's past, it definitely affected her as a rape victim and someone who dedicates her life to educating individuals about sexual assault. She writes,
Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.
Despite starring in the film and supporting the story her character is telling, that doesn't mean Union is going to sit back and be silent about the controversy. "As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly," she writes. "On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said 'no,' silence certainly does not equal 'yes.' Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital."
(Regarding Union's claim that Parker "did not have verbal affirmation," Parker touched on this subject in an interview with Ebony in August: "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.")
And Union's last statement is where she spins all of this into something that can potentially be positive. As she notes throughout her essay, Parker's personal story can be used to educate others about the definition of consent, to transform rape culture, and to help others who may have experienced something similar. Even Union's own story and that of her Birth of a Nation character can be used to open up the conversation, which is exactly what she's doing with her op-ed, about something that is far too often silenced or ignored.
Education and discussion are two matters Union and her husband, Dwyane Wade, have instilled within their home as parents. She explains,
As a black woman raising brilliant, handsome, talented young black men, I am cognizant of my responsibility to them and their future. My husband and I stress the importance of their having to walk an even straighter line than their white counterparts. A lesson that is heartbreaking and infuriating, but mandatory in the world we live in. We have spent countless hours focused on manners, education, the perils of drugs. We teach them about stranger-danger and making good choices. But recently I’ve become aware that we must speak to our children about boundaries between the sexes. And what it means to not be a danger to someone else.
She powerfully continues, "To that end, we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear 'yes.'"
Education and actually talking about it, whether that be in the privacy of your own home or in a published letter on the internet, is important when it comes to "no means no." As the Being Mary Jane star notes in her essay, it doesn't matter what she thinks may or may not have happened (she even read all 700 pages of the trial transcript) with Parker, but what does matter is giving a voice to the conversation. Like she says, "But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize."
I'll leave off with this final quote from Union, which is the most important of all and something everyone should take to heart.
It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation. To reach out to organizations which are working hard to prevent these kinds of crimes. And to support its victims. To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture. And to eventually wipe the stain clean.