By Christopher Rosen
Updated August 27, 2016 at 06:44 PM EDT
Frazer Harrison/WireImage

The Birth of a Nation

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  • Movie

Nate Parker says his initial comments about the 1999 rape trial that has resurfaced amid discussion of The Birth of a Nation came from a “standpoint of ignorance.”

In a new interview with Ebony, the actor and director said the interviews he did earlier this month with Deadline and Variety, in which the 1999 rape trial was discussed, came when he didn’t know the woman who accused him and Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin of rape had died by suicide.

“This is hard; I’ve been trying to figure out how to say this. Not everyone has the best intentions. I thought I was giving the interview, at the time of those two interviews — and one really just bit off the other — I didn’t know the status of the women,” Parker said. “I didn’t know. I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. I was acting as if I was the victim because I felt like, my only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know. I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second.”

He added, “You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was being even arrogant. And learning about her passing shook me, it really did. It really shook me.”

In 1999, while students at Penn State University, Parker and Celestin were accused of raping a woman who was unconscious and intoxicated after a night of drinking. Parker was acquitted of the charge; Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was overturned on account of an ineffective defense from his lawyer. He was not retried for the crime, as the victim declined to testify.

In the interview with Ebony, Parker was asked how he would “classify that particular incident with you, Jean, and the girl.”

“I’ll say this, I think that they are more things than the law,” Parker said. “I think there is having a behavior that is disrespectful to women that goes unchecked, where your manhood is defined by sexual conquests, where you trade stories with your friends and no one checks anyone. At 19, that was normal. As a 36-year-old man, if I looked at my 19-year-old self as my son, if I could have grabbed him earlier before this incident, or even just going to college. Because for me, it’s about this incident, but it’s about a culture that I never took the time to try to understand. I never examined my role in male culture, in hypermasculinity. I never examined it, nobody ever called me on it.

“So if I’m 36 and I have my 19-year-old self, I’m pulling him to the side, and saying, ‘Listen bruh, throwing on your Timbs and your fitted hat and strolling campus trying to get a girl to say yes, or going to the club hoping you bring a girl home, that’s not the way to go about healthy relationships. You need to step back. You need to think about how that affects you, how it affects them, how it affects the women in your life.'”

After the rape trial was brought up in an interview with Variety, Parker said, “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.”

After the victim’s suicide came to light, Parker added on Facebook, “I cannot — nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial. While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.

“I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”

In the wake of the controversy, The Birth of a Nation, Parker’s breakout Sundance film which was purchased by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, has come under scrutiny. The studio still plans to release the film on Oct. 7, but a scheduled screening and Q&A for the film at AFI was canceled.

Read the full interview with Parker at Ebony.

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The Birth of a Nation

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