As The Birth of a Nation opens in theaters this weekend, actor and filmmaker Nate Parker has spent the past week aggressively promoting his directorial debut, a project which has been shrouded in controversy since a 1999 rape case against him resurfaced in August.
In interviews on 60 Minutes, The T.D. Jakes Show, Good Morning America, and Steve Harvey, Parker has mostly stressed the importance of the story in his movie, which is centered on the Nat Turner–led Virginia slave rebellion of 1831. He’s also emphasized his acquittal of the charges and has declined to apologize to the alleged victim’s family for the incident and for allegedly harassing the woman after she filed her police report during their time at Penn State. During his first televised appearance since the allegations re-emerged, which aired on Oct. 2, Parker told Anderson Cooper, “I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that.”
“He’s made it all about himself,” Elyse Cizek, a rape survivor and activist, told BuzzFeed News in a phone interview, reacting to Parker’s interviews with the press this week. Cizek is one of the founders of the #FvckRapeCulture movement (which helped catalyze a protest in September against Brock Turner’s lenient sentencing). For the bow of The Birth of a Nation, she and fellow organizer Remy Holwick are redirecting their focus on Parker’s alleged victim — who killed herself in 2012 — and those affected by sexual violence: They’ve arranged a candlelight vigil, taking place in Los Angeles at 7 p.m. PT tonight (Oct. 6) outside the ArcLight Hollywood movie theater, which is featuring a Thursday night preview of the film.
While Cizek has personally opted to boycott the film — and many others have announced on Twitter that they would #BoycottBirthOfANation — she affirms that the event is less a protest and more a vigil for survivors of sexual violence.
“I’m not telling everyone not to go see [the movie],” Cizek said, asserting that those aware of the allegations against Parker who feel “comfortable” seeing it should feel free to do so. She predicts that “a lot of people are going to go see this film,” but for those who opt out, “I want to give them space.”
“The statement we’re making is that we exist,” she said. “We’re just trying to make ourselves known and that our story is important too.”
Cizek condemned Parker — who directed, produced, and stars as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation — for his lack of remorse and for writing fictionalized sexual assaults into his movie. In the film, Turner’s wife (Aja Naomi King) and a minor character played by Gabrielle Union — an actor who has taken a much more public stand against rape and rape culture than Parker — are raped by white slave patrollers and a white slave owner, respectively. Though there aren’t scenes of the assaults onscreen, the acts are implied and compel Turner to revolt. Parker’s screenplay for the historical drama presents “survivors of rape as plot accessories,” said Cizek, echoing similar sentiments made by the Washington Post and a New Yorker review.
She noted that sexual assault victims don’t always report their experiences because of “how much you'd be dragged through the mud,” and “because they [don’t] know that it is OK for them to tell that story.” That’s why she finds Parker’s use of sexual assault as a plot element so “sickening,” she said. “For him to then turn around and put two scenes in his film [about] rape … It turns my stomach.”
“He could've used this as a platform to talk about consent, to speak to other men and say, ‘This was something that happened, and I was ignorant of my mistake. And now I understand the damage that has been caused, and I'm willing to take ownership of it.’ But he refuses to do that,” Cizek said. She said that she wants very much to support movies like Parker’s and other black filmmakers’ in an industry dominated by white men: “This isn’t a demand, this isn’t a ridicule, this isn’t a public flogging. I want to talk to him, and I want him to listen.
“If Nate Parker gives us the opportunity to forgive him, I will — if he would own up to the disrespect that he’s shown to victims; show a little bit of remorse or just a little bit of understanding; do something to forward the message.”
But as the situation stands right now? “He wants to play this hero, and he has the chance to be a real-life hero, and he’s not,” she said.
Fox Searchlight did not answer a request for comment by BuzzFeed News.