Nate Parker wants to talk about `The Birth of a Nation' - not his past

Nate Parker, who co-wrote, directed and stars in "The Birth of a Nation," was charged with rape in 1999 while an undergrad at Penn State. He was acquitted in 2001, but allegedly harassed his accuser on campus.

As an African American, I really want to support Nate Parker's new slave revolt drama, The Birth of a Nation.

As a woman, though, I look side-eyed at a director who appears to be somewhat tone deaf to the concerns of those asking questions about his having been charged with rape in 1999 while an undergrad at Penn State.

Parker was acquitted in 2001. His college roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, was found guilty of sexual assault, but the conviction was later overturned after the accuser declined to testify during a retrial. Parker and Celestin allegedly harassed the accuser on campus. Her brother told Variety that the alleged incident had changed her; she committed suicide in 2012 following several previous failed attempts.

All of this ugliness resurfaced after The Birth of a Nation debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January.

Parker not only directed the biopic, but he co-wrote it and stars in it as well. The film made cinematic history after it attracted rave reviews, and Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased it for a whopping $17.5 million. The movie, which has been attracting Oscar buzz, is set to open Oct. 7.

Meanwhile, there have been boycott threats from rape survivors and others. Roxanne Gay, author of "Bad Feminist," wrote in the New York Times last month that she had no intention of ever seeing the movie.

"It has been 17 years since whatever took place at Penn State," she pointed out in an op-ed. "Do we take him at his word that he is a changed man, that he should be forgiven? Do we dare dismiss Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin's actions as youthful indiscretions?"

In a Facebook post last month, Parker attempted to address the negativity saying, "I have changed so much since 19. I've grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community - and will continue to do this to the best of my ability."

Actress Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor herself, has a small role in The Birth of a Nation and has come out in support of Parker.

"On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date's consent?" she wrote in an op-ed. "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."

As for me, I hate to see a talented filmmaker get torn down over something from his past.

One way to move on is by talking about what happened - or didn't. I sat down with Parker earlier this week at the Ritz-Carlton to hear what he had to say about the controversy. The interview didn't go so well. More than once, when I directed questions toward him, he deflected and pointed out that the film is larger than he is.

"I'm just one person. I'm a person on a call sheet," said Parker, 36, who is originally from Virginia.

There were moments when things got testy.

Nobody wants to be called on anything they did when they were 19, I offered at one point, hoping to steer the conversation toward the allegations he once faced.

"Were you speaking for me?" he shot back before once again slipping into pitchman mode.

At one point, I asked Parker if he thought the media were being unfair to him during his moment of cinematic triumph by bringing up the past.

"My job is to be a filmmaker," he said. "Your job is to report the news. I'm just doing my job, and you're just doing yours."

Finally, I asked if there was anything that he wanted to share about the charges he once faced, and this is what he told me:

"I'll say to you what I've said to you before, and that is I've addressed it. And I'll address it in future forums very explicitly, you know ... But right now, it's a different forum, and I want to be fair to the people who put all of the time and work into it. It's not the Nate Parker [film].

"I really want to give honor to my elder Nat Turner and address these other things as the proper forums and contexts present themselves."

Until then, I guess the folks who still have questions and concerns will just have to wait.

@JeniceArmstrong

Blog: ph.ly/HeyJen

armstrj@phillynews.com