Parker was charged and later acquitted of raping an 18-year-old woman while he was a student and wrestler at Penn State in 1999; he was acquitted partially because he and the alleged victim had consensual sex before the purported rape. That victim, who has remained anonymous, committed suicide in 2012.
On Friday, seasoned actress Gabrielle Union, who also stars in Birth of a Nation, wrote a heart-shattering essay for the Los Angeles Times about being raped at gunpoint when she was 24 years old, in a dark back room at her former place of employment. She says when it comes to the rape allegations against Parker, she “cannot take them lightly.”
Parker wrote a lengthy Facebook post when he discovered that the rape victim killed herself, saying “I am filled with profound sorrow… while I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law.”
Union was apparently not assuaged by Parker’s comments, as she points out in her op-ed.
“Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals,” she wrote. “And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence. Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion.”
“As important and groundbreaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly,” she continued. “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.'”
She goes on to say that she hopes Birth of a Nation will open up the conversation and help educate people, so that attacks and rapes will “cease to occur.”
In the film, Union plays the role of the non-dialogue character Esther. Her silence on-screen is something she doesn’t want to replicate in real life, especially as a staunch rape-survivor advocate.
“In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated,” she wrote. “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.”
WATCH: Nate Parker’s interview snub latest controversy to surround director
Some recent screenings and Q&As with Parker and the film’s stars have been cancelled, though the film is still screening at this year’s Toronto Film Festival.
In 1999, Parker was charged along with his roommate Jean Celestin (who allegedly raped the woman with Parker and is a co-writer Birth of a Nation) with rape. The woman insisted she was unconscious during the encounter. She said she was also stalked and harassed by both men after she reported the assault. Parker and Celestin were suspended from the wrestling team, and Parker transferred to an Oklahoma college.
Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault, and was sentenced to six months in jail. Celestin appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial, but the case never began because the victim didn’t want to testify further.