'The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger,' Sharpton said
Rev. Al Sharpton has voiced his support for actor and director Nate Parker after new details of a 17-year-old rape case against the filmmaker resurfaced this month, sparking major controversy ahead of the release of Parker’s The Birth of a Nation.
Parker and Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin were accused of sexually assaulting a woman at Penn State University in 1999. Parker was charged, though he was later acquitted in a 2001 trial; a jury found Celestin guilty of sexual assault and he was sentenced to six months in prison. (The conviction was later overturned.) It was later revealed by the alleged victim’s brother that she died by suicide in 2012. Speaking to The Root, Sharpton revealed he’d personally conversed with Parker, who maintains his innocence. Sharpton said he believes the court’s decision concerning the sexual assault charges brought against the 36-year-old should be the defining outcome of Parker’s involvement in the case.
“Nobody is justifying wrong, but if you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways,” Sharpton told the publication, while also acknowledging the difficult issues women have raised in response to the controversy. “All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?”
The Birth of a Nation, which dramatizes the real-life slave rebellion staged by Nat Turner in the antebellum South, was acquired by Fox Searchlight, the studio behind such Oscar-winning films as 12 Years a Slave and Birdman, at January’s Sundance Film Festival for a record $17.5 million. As the film is set to screen at the Toronto International Film Festival in September, it is believed the distributor is mounting an awards season campaign for the film ahead of its planned Oct. 7 theatrical release.
Sharpton further explained he admired Parker’s dedication to “flip” D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation — which celebrates members of the Ku Klux Klan and features numerous white actors in blackface — into a feature revolving around Turner. Sharpton said he will continue to monitor the Academy’s ongoing push for diversity, while also keeping an eye on the film’s theatrical opening later this year.
“All these millions of dollars these folks get paid, and they won’t tell our story,” Sharpton continued. “All these elaborate homes they build, and they won’t tell our story. And here comes a man with a wife and five children who puts it all on the line, and you think I’m going to be quiet? We are going to stand up and tell our story.”
During a speech at the headquarters of National Action Network, a civil rights organization he founded in 1991, Sharpton called out the Academy once again, several months after he spearheaded a boycott against the Oscars in February over the lack of diversity on display among AMPAS’ annual crop of nominees.
“Now, all of a sudden, they rediscover what they already knew,” said Sharpton, referencing the recent resurfacing of both old and new details regarding Parker’s case. “The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger.”
Sharpton continued: “Somebody has to have enough courage to tell the truth no matter what the consequences are.”