I had decided not to see Nate Parker’s new movie.
This was a tough choice. I had been looking forward with great eagerness to the October release of “Birth of a Nation,” Parker’s acclaimed account of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. But this was before I heard about the rape.
Meaning the 1999 rape that Parker, as a matter of legal fact, did not commit when he and his roommate, Jean Celestin, had a sexual encounter with a drunken woman while they were students at Penn State. Parker was acquitted – he said the act was consensual and that they’d had sex previously. Celestin was convicted, but the conviction was overturned.
The alleged victim also accused Parker, Celestin and their friends of harassing her when she pressed charges. She dropped out of school and twice attempted suicide. On the third attempt, in 2012, she was successful.
All of which was troubling enough. Then came the recent interviews in which Parker addressed the incident. “Seventeen years ago,” he told Variety, “I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that.”
Observers were predictably appalled by such self-centered dismissiveness. “The solipsism is staggering,” wrote Roxane Gay of the New York Times. Writing in the Root, Maiysha Kai scored Parker’s “seeming disconnect and lack of empathy.”
He has since apologized. And you should know: This was not the non-apology apology so common now for misbehaving celebrities. It was not Donald Trump’s vague “regret” for unspecified sins against unspecified people, nor Ryan Lochte describing his lie as a failure to be “careful and candid.”
No, in an interview posted last weekend by Ebony, Parker comes across as a man honestly appalled by his own “selfish” behavior. “I wasn’t thinking about even the potential hurt of others. I was thinking about myself.”
He said he has read his critics’ criticisms to figure out “what do I need to learn about the situation? … If I’m really serious about changing my attitude … then what do I need to be feeling?”
He confessed that when he initially spoke, he didn’t know his alleged victim had killed herself.
“I was acting as if I was the victim,” he said. “… Why didn’t (my words) 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.”
“I’m sorry for all the women who are survivors who were hurt by my words,” he said, “because they were insensitive and they were nonchalant.” Parker seems belatedly to realize how little it means that, as a legal matter, he didn’t commit rape. As a legal matter, after all, George Zimmerman didn’t commit murder. Nor did O.J. Simpson.
Granted, Parker has reason to sound convincing. He’s trying to save a movie. On the other hand, Trump was trying to save a presidential run and Lochte, a career.
Me, I believe him. I’m just trying to figure out what that should mean.
I offer no sophistry about separating art from artist. No such separation exists for any art worthy of the name. If Phil Spector, Bill Cosby and Roman Polanski prove nothing else, they prove human beings and human art are complicated, a latticework of shadow and light.
As a man, it’s not my place, nor is it within my power, to absolve Nate Parker. I’m just trying to decide whether to see his movie – whether doing so is consonant with the moral man I try to be.
He’s got me thinking about it. That’s more than I could have said a week ago.
Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, appears in Opinion on Mondays.