Nate Parker, the writer, director and star of the highly anticipated new film Birth of a Nation, wants the world to know that he deserves empathy.
On Tuesday night, the heartbreaking turn of the sordid story of a 1999 sexual assault allegation, made against Parker while he was a student athlete at Penn State, was revealed: Variety reported that the woman, who has not been identified publicly, committed suicide in 2012. She was 30 years old and, according to court and medical records, suffered from major depression and PTSD stemming from the incident with Parker and the trial that followed.
Parker was acquitted. His co-defendant, then-roommate, and current co-writer of Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, was found guilty but that ruling was overturned on appeal.
Hours after news of his accuser's suicide was first reported, Parker wrote a response on his Facebook page. In it, he wrote that he was "filled with profound sorrow" after just learning of the woman's death, and wished he had used "more wisdom" at the time when the alleged assault happened 17 years ago.
"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," Parker wrote. "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 a statement to the New York Times, the accuser's family asked for privacy:
We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals. While we cannot protect the victim from this media storm, we can do our best to protect her son. For that reason, we ask for privacy for our family and do not wish to comment further.
Meanwhile, the accuser's sister, Sharon Loeffler, said that this renewed attention is long overdue. "I know what she would've said," she said to the New York Times. "That would be, 'I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore." Loeffler also mentioned that her sister believed Parker and Celestin assaulted other women. "These guys sucked the soul and life out of her."
Parker's latest statement still falls short. In it, he writes that he understands why the case attracts so much attention. "These issues of a women's right to be safe and of men and women engaging in healthy relationships are extremely important to talk about, however difficult." But he's wrong.
Sexual assault is not about "men and women engaging in healthy relationships." It's about power — the power that one person has over another person's body. And then the power that victims have — or often don't have — to be believed. Parker may insist that time, his family, and his faith have changed him, but this is one lesson that he still doesn't get. It's crucial that he does.
After all, Parker made a film about an enslaved man who led one of history's most important slave rebellions, a film whose very name is an attempt to disrupt the power of misrepresentation of black people in American cinema. He can use this moment to do better.