[Commentary] Brother to Brother: Nate Parker, You Got to Do Better

PASADENA, CA - FEBRUARY 05:  Actor Nate Parker attends the 47th NAACP Image Awards presented by TV One at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on February 5, 2016 in Pasadena, California.  (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)

[Commentary] Brother to Brother: Nate Parker, You Got to Do Better

Black men must tackle rape culture with the same level of consciousness and respect as racial justice.

Published August 30, 2016

Dear Nate Parker,

You most likely won’t remember me. We met briefly in the beginning of August during a preview of your highly anticipated film The Birth of a Nation in Washington, D.C. It was during the National Association of Black Journalists Convention and Roland Martin hosted a talk back with you and the cast. There was notably no Q&A from the audience, even though we were in a room full of journalists. 

My suspicions as to why you wouldn’t lend yourself to our questions became very clear later that week when reports began to resurface of your involvement in an alleged campus rape at Penn State back in 1999. I found the reported transgressions traumatic given that I’ve seen some of the same actions impact college friends of mine who were rape victims. I awaited an explanation from you about all of this — and instead, all I got in your statements were defensiveness, tone-deafness and victim blaming.

Of course, our community was divided on the issue. I watched as Black women felt targeted in voicing their concerns over the disappointing news, while Black men in the public eye began to automatically have your back with conspiracy theories. Now, you have come back from two weeks of horrible press and an attempt to speak about that campus incident, consent and toxic masculinity

While I tried to understand where you were coming from in your exclusive interview with Ebony’s Britni Danielle — your words fell flat. It looked like your PR team gave you talking points that just didn’t seem genuine or with depth. You still avoided specifically addressing your role in what happened during those years of testimony and controversy. I noticed that you’re more interested in talking about the broader lens of rape culture — male privilege and toxic masculinity — without talking about rape itself. In other words, you’re putting the cart before the horse without directly taking responsibility for your actions. That’s exactly how rape culture is perpetuated — those who partake in it avoid speaking specifically about it all costs

I personally wanted to know if you now acknowledge guilt and hold yourself accountable for your actions looking back. I was curious if you were ever going to address the reports that you and your friend Jean Celestin (who was also accused and connected to the alleged rape) harassed the alleged victim after being arrested. In other words, reports and documents show that your behavior that night was beyond just one separate incident, but numerous transgressions that appear to be you intimidating a rape victim. I wanted you to drop the guilty consciousness and just own up to your mistakes, but instead I found you making blanket statements about male culture in general.

On behalf of Black men, such as myself, and the many who mentor, inspire and strengthen me: we are not complicit with rape culture, nor is our male privilege an excuse to perpetuate it. Let’s not confuse terms and its correlation. As a man, regardless of how much of a feminist I am, I will always be a beneficiary of male privilege. No matter how much I hate this reality, it’s the consequence of my gender and I recognize this. However, as a conscious man, I have made a decision that I will do as much as I can not to subscribe to institutions and individuals who aren’t progressing the liberation and equal opportunity of women. 

Now this is different from rape culture, which predicates itself on exempting men from taking responsibility for sexually assaulting and belittling an individual. You spoke on toxic masculinity, which is the social pressure some men resort to (such as being hypersexual and overtly aggressive) as a distorted way to display their manhood. Male privilege complicates this when we don’t believe women the first time they report a rape even though they are statistically proven more often than not to be telling the truth. Rape culture is when we automatically try to find conspiracy and inconvenience when accusations of it appear. I’m here to remind everyone that there is never a wrong time for a victim to report a rape or to discuss it. 

Racial injustice impacts African-Americans at a ridiculous rate. Therefore, there tends to be a sense of protecting “us” at any cost. Too often in pop culture, when Black men are accused, we often give them the benefit of the doubt and shame the victim. 

Nate Parker, I’m not going to let you off the hook like that.

Just like I didn’t for Woody Allen, R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and the long list of other Hollywood men who have been in the same boat before. 

I also believe in restorative justice and healing. If you expect audiences to consider the thought of seeing this film and supporting it, you must step up as a man and take full responsibility for what you know to be true and just. 

Even as I write this, I begin to feel a sense of concern that such a demand is bent on the capitalistic influence of being a moviegoer. So scratch that. Nate Parker, just do the right thing: own up to your shortcomings and truly hold yourself accountable in the public eye. 

Whether or not I plan to see this Birth of a Nation remains a mystery. Right now, I don’t intend to because the important story of Nat Turner doesn’t depend on the retelling of one problematic Black filmmaker. I won’t let the Hollywood industry and high profile Black men act as though we must not address rape culture in order to support one film that can be done by someone else. If you want to know more about Nat Turner and his impeccable rebellion, go to the library, talk to Black historians in your community, in other words, there’s more ways than just this film. 

This doesn’t mean I don’t want you, Nate, to not get better as a person and seriously make sincere atonements for your past problems. Statements with great talking points are cute, but genuine accountability and reform is more impactful. 


Ernest Owens 

Written by Ernest Owens

(Photo: Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for NAACP Image Awards)


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