Star and director Nate Parker was acquitted of sexual assault as a college student

By Oliver Gettell
Updated August 16, 2016 at 12:00 PM EDT

Fox Searchlight is moving forward with plans to release Nate Parker’s historical drama The Birth of a Nation this fall amid recent reports that have brought renewed attention to a rape trial from the actor-filmmaker’s past.

The studio confirmed to EW that the film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion is still scheduled to open nationwide Oct. 7, and said in a statement, “Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”

In 1999, Parker and college roommate Jean Celestin, who also co-wrote Birth of a Nation, were charged with raping a fellow student while she was unconscious after a night of drinking. Parker was acquitted in court, while Celestin was convicted but appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial. The case was never retried because the woman decided not to testify again. Variety reported Tuesday that the woman died by suicide in 2012.

Parker and Celestin’s case had been covered by local news media, and transcripts of the trial are public record, but the episode has received wider attention in the wake of Birth of a Nation becoming a Sundance sensation and an Oscar hopeful this year. (Fox Searchlight acquired the movie for a record-breaking $17.5 million — the most ever paid for a Sundance film.)

In recent days, Parker and Celestin have both addressed the sexual assault case. Parker told Variety, “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.”

Celestin told Deadline in an email, “This was something that I experienced as a college student 17 years ago and was fully exonerated of. I have since moved on and been focusing on my family and writing career.”

Additional reporting by Nicole Sperling.

The Birth of a Nation

  • Movie
  • R
  • 120 minutes
  • Nate Parker