In a one-on-one interview, the ‘Birth of a Nation’ star gets candid about rape culture and shares what he’d tell his 19-year-old self about consent
Can I go off script real quick?”
That was how Nate Parker broke his silence on the growing firestorm surrounding his 1999 rape allegation. After giving a pair of interviews to Variety and Deadline earlier this month that seemed to only add fuel to the controversy, Parker has stayed mum, save for an Aug. 16 Facebook post addressing the incident.
After the American Film Institute canceled a Birth of a Nation screening and Q&A session with the filmmaker last week, Parker took to the stage Friday night at the Merge Summit in Los Angeles to give his first interview since all hell broke loose.
From the beginning, the crowd was on his side. As the credits rolled on Birth of a Nation, Parker entered the theater to a standing ovation. One woman even yelled, “We love you!” as he strode to the front. After answering a question about why he chose to make “yet another slave film,” Parker addressed the controversy head-on.
“I think it’s very difficult to talk about injustice and not deal with what’s happening right now,” the 36-year-old actor and director told the audience. “When I was first met with the news that this part of my past had come up, my knee-jerk reaction was selfish. I wasn’t thinking about even the potential hurt of others; I was thinking about myself.”
For the next 12 minutes, Parker discussed learning about things like toxic masculinity and male privilege, while explaining that he isn’t upset the rape allegation has been resurrected.
“This is happening for a very specific reason,” Parker explained, referencing God throughout the conversation. “To be honest, my privilege as a male, I never thought about it. I’m walking around daring someone to say something or do something that I define is racist or holding us back, but never really thinking about male culture and the destructive effect it’s having on our community. “
It’s easy to root for Nate Parker. He’s fiery, committed to a cause higher than himself, and he seems to really love uplifting Black people. Moreover, he risked his entire career, investing his own money and threatening to give up acting, to make a film about Nat Turner. And it paid off. Parker’s hard work made him the talk of the Sundance Film Festival where he sold his film for a record $17.5 million.
To paraphrase Tyra Banks, we were all rooting for him.
But that was before the rape allegation resurfaced, and before Parker’s admittedly self-centered comments, stating, “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.” That was before most people read the court documents, or found out Parker’s accuser killed herself in 2012. After the countless articles and op-eds and social media conversations, rooting for Parker became a complicated notion at best.
Through it all, Parker remained silent—a fact that only heightened the speculation that he was hiding out. But after the panel, Parker agreed to give EBONY a one-on-one interview that would last about 10 minutes.
What happened instead was that Parker talked for 25 minutes about consent, male privilege, and how he feels about being called a rapist.
EBONY.com: You started out tonight addressing the controversy, and you talked a lot about male culture and toxic masculinity. So I want to kind of compare. What, at 19, did you know about consent?
Nate Parker: To be honest, not very much. It wasn’t a conversation people were having. When I think about 1999, I think about being a 19-year-old kid, and I think about my attitude and behavior just toward women with respect to objectifying them. I never thought about consent as a definition, especially as I do now. I think the definitions of so many things have changed.
EBONY.com: So how does it differ for you?
Nate Parker: You mean like where I am right now?
EBONY.com: Yeah, as 36-year-old Nate.
Nate Parker: Put it this way, when you’re 19, a threesome is normal. It’s fun. When you’re 19, getting a girl to say yes, or being a dog, or being a player, cheating. Consent is all about–for me, back then–if you can get a girl to say yes, you win.
EBONY.com: Yes to, like, hanging out? Or yes to, like, sex?
Nate Parker: If I can be just honest about it, just being down. Back then, when I was young and we were out being dogs it was about is she down? You think she down?
EBONY.com: Was that a question you would actually pose to her?
Nate Parker: No.
EBONY.com: So it was kinda like an assumption you were working on?
Nate Parker: Back then, it felt like…I’ll say this: at 19, if a woman said no, no meant no. If she didn’t say anything and she was open, and she was down, it was like how far can I go? If I touch her breast and she’s down for me to touch her breast, cool. If I touch her lower, and she’s down and she’s not stopping me, cool. I’m going to kiss her or whatever. It was simply if a woman said no or pushed you away that was non-consent.
Let me be the first to say, I can’t remember ever having a conversation about the definition of consent when I was a kid. I knew that no meant no, but that’s it. But, if she’s down, if she’s not saying no, if she’s engaged–and I’m not talking about, just being clear, any specific situation, I’m just talking about in general.
I think that’s a tough question, because the 2016 lens, even now in a relationship, I feel like I’m way more attentive and curious as to what my wife wants, if she feels like it, her body language. I’ll ask my wife.
EBONY.com: You’re talking about sex?
Nate Parker: Yeah, it’s like, do you wanna have sex tonight? No? Okay.
EBONY.com: But that wasn’t…
Nate Parker: No, asking that question outright when I was younger? No. I just want to preface this all, I keep saying it, I’m learning, still. I’m 36-years-old and I’m learning about definitions that I should have known when I started having sex.
EBONY.com: You mentioned that your initial comments about the resurrection of this incident were self-centered, and from an emotional place on your behalf. So do you understand why people are struggling with…
Nate Parker: Absolutely! I understand now, but I was speaking from a standpoint of ignorance.
EBONY.com: Two weeks ago, you mean?
Nate Parker: Yeah. Well, when you don’t know, you don’t know. It’s like, if I don’t know how to swim and two weeks later I know how to swim, I know how to swim. Honestly, when I started reading those comments I had to call some people and say, What did I do wrong? What did I say wrong?
I called a couple of sisters that know, that are in the space that talk about the feminist movement and toxic masculinity, and just asked questions. What did I do wrong? Because I was thinking about myself. And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman. I didn’t think about her then, and I didn’t think about her when I was saying those statements, which was wrong and insensitive.
I just really wanted to know more about what I was talking about. People were saying, why isn’t he speaking soon? Cause I still didn’t know nothing. I don’t want…this ain’t the hype for me.
EBONY.com: Because, you know, now it comes off like, two weeks after the fact, the criticism is up and now you have to say something because…
Nate Parker: Let’s just put it like this: if a person was accused of being a racist when he was young–he said some racially insensitive thing or someone had him on tape calling someone the n-word or whatever–and then you fast forward and he feels, Oh, back then I didn’t say this or that. He’s not thinking about the person that he hurt when he said what he said, or however it came out, or the effects that it could have had. He’s not thinking about it. He’s thinking about his own self and how he feels.
EBONY.com: So how does it feel when people say, “Nate Parker is a rapist?” Not racist, obviously, but rapist. And…what do you do with that?
Nate Parker: I don’t know how to respond…if you’re asking me about…
EBONY.com: I’m asking you how does that feel to have that…
Nate Parker: I’ll say this: I don’t want it to be about me. If you’re asking me about a particular event, that’s one thing. But I can see that there are a lot of people that have been hurt, a lot of people that are survivors. I’m finding out people in my own circle that are survivors that I didn’t even know. There are people on my film that are survivors that carry that pain, and I had to call and talk to them all, like, how do you feel about what’s happening? What do you need me to do? What do I need to get?
All I can do is seek the information that’ll make me stronger, that’ll help me overcome my toxic masculinity, my male privilege, because that’s something you never think about. You don’t think about other people. It’s the same thing with White Supremacy. Trying to convince someone that they are a racist or they have White Privilege–if it’s in the air they breathe and the culture supports them, sometimes they never have to think about it at all. I recognize as a man there’s a lot of things that I don’t have to think about. But I’m thinking about them now.
People may say that, “Oh, now is good timing.” I don’t know what to say to them except I’m trying. I’m trying to transform behaviors and ideas that have never been challenged in certain ways in my life. I’m not the kid that I was at 19.
EBONY.com: So, how would 36-year-old Nate classify that particular incident with you, Jean [Celestin], and the girl?
Nate Parker: I’ll say this, I think that they are more things than the law. 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 hyper masculinity. 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.”
The crazy thing is a lot of people–a lot of men, if I’m just speaking for myself–don’t really start thinking about the effect of hyper-masculinity and false definitions of what it means to be a man until you get married or until you have kids. Because then all of sudden you have something to protect. In all actuality, we got to do better about preparing our men for their interactions with women.
SOURCE: Ebony – Britni Danielle