As controversy continues to trail Birth of a Nation ahead of its theatrical release, actress Gabrielle Union has written an emotional essay addressing the rape allegations against the film’s director and star, Nate Parker.
“As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly,” she wrote for the Los Angeles Times in an article published on Friday.
Union, who portrays a victim of sexual assault in the movie, says she took the part because of its personal relevance: Last February, she revealed that she was raped at gunpoint at the age of 19.
“Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion,” she wrote. “I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.”
She signed onto Birth of a Nation two years ago, before reports regarding Parker’s sexual assault trial resurfaced. He was charged with rape in 1999 but later acquitted in 2001; his accuser died by suicide in 2012. Parker has maintained his innocence in the matter, and expressed “profound sorrow” over the woman’s death in a lengthy Facebook post. The movie’s co-writer, Jean Celestin, was also involved in the trial. He was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison. (The conviction was later overturned.)
“On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? 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,'” Union continued. “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.”
The actress added that while she will never know the truth surrounding Parker’s alleged crime, she believes it’s crucial that Birth of a Nation continues to screen.
“Regardless of what I think may have happened that night 17 years ago, after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcript, I still don’t actually know. Nor does anyone who was not in that room,” she wrote. “But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize… I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary.”
Birth of a Nation tells the story of Nat Turner (Parker), a 19th century slave and preacher who led a rebellion against his oppressors in the antebellum South. Its distributors, Fox Searchlight, still plan to release the film in North America on Oct. 7.
Read Union’s full essay on The Los Angeles Times‘ website.