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Rape Allegations Against Actor-Director Nate Parker Resurface


"The Birth Of A Nation," a new movie based on the story of Nat Turner's slave rebellion in 1831, was poised to be one of the breakout films of the year. The same was said of its star and director, Nate Parker. That's now in question as new details have surfaced about Parker's past.

In 1999, Parker and his film's co-writer, Jean Celestin - college roommates at that time - were accused of the rape of a fellow student at Penn State. Parker was acquitted of the crime. The accuser died by suicide in 2012.

The allegations resurfaced in the last week, thanks to the spotlight brought on by the buzz of the new film. Earlier today, I spoke with Brent Lang about the case. He's a reporter with Variety magazine. And a warning to our listeners, this is going to be a detailed conversation about sexual assault.

BRENT LANG: Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker were accused of raping the female in question. She claimed that after a night of drinking, she passed out at Mr. Parker's apartment, and she awoke to find out that she was having intercourse - not even just with Mr. Parker, but with his roommate. Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin both acknowledged that they had a sexual encounter with the woman, but they claim that it was consensual.

CORNISH: How did these trials end?

LANG: So Mr. Parker was exonerated in his trial. And part of the reason that the jury found him to be not guilty seems to be the fact that he had had a consensual sexual encounter with the female the day before the alleged rape took place. Mr. Celestin was found guilty, but that verdict was later overturned. And a retrial never took place reportedly because the accuser was uncomfortable with having to testify again.

CORNISH: Now what new information has come out that's forced this back into the spotlight?

LANG: Well, two things there. First of all, Mr. Parker's public profile was relatively low. So even though this was a piece of his biography that was publicly available on Wikipedia, and he had answered some questions in the media about it before, it was not widely known. It also came out this week, Variety reported, that the female accuser actually ended up committing suicide in 2012.

CORNISH: Nate Parker hasn't been shy about trying to explain this. He's tried to speak out in the last few days. What does he have to say?

LANG: Yes. Mr. Parker posted a message on Facebook in which he expressed sympathy for the woman and her family, saying that, you know, he acknowledged that this trial had been an ordeal, but he maintained his innocence. And the woman's family is somewhat divided. A statement from the family to The New York Times said that they sort of questioned the motivation for why this was coming out again and said that they wanted people to respect their privacy. But some family members have spoken to media indicating that they are upset that Mr. Parker is receiving some public attention for this movie and that they are still angry about the legal process.

CORNISH: What's distinctive about the way Nate Parker is responding to all this? As we said, he was acquitted. He's talked about being cleared of wrongdoing, yet it seems like he's taken a different approach than we've seen other Hollywood figures who have had accusations of sexual assaults and other charges kind of thrown their way.

LANG: Well, I think he seems to be wanting to try to take this head-on. He did sit for interviews with a number of publications. Some of that may have been a - an effort to hopefully answer those questions and to get it behind him in advance of the film's release later this year. It's unclear if this will end up working. Crisis PR veterans seem to be somewhat divided about the wisdom of this move. They seem to think that, in some ways, he maybe opened himself up to more questions.

CORNISH: That's Brent Lang, a senior reporter for Variety magazine. Thanks for speaking with us.

LANG: Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.