The upcoming Nat Turner biopic "The Birth of Nation" is already controversial, not just because of its portrayal of an infamously bloody slave rebellion. The film's release has been overshadowed by resurfaced 17-year-old rape allegations against its writer-director-star Nate Parker.
Parker and Jean Celestin, who received a co-story credit for "The Birth of a Nation," were accused of rape in 1999 by a fellow female student at Penn State University. Parker, who maintained the encounter was consensual, was charged and found not guilty in 2001. Celestin was charged and convicted of sexual assault. He was sentenced to six months in prison, though the verdict was overturned on appeal due to ineffective counsel and the case was not retried.
As the acclaimed drama — which was pegged as a likely Oscar contender following its rapturous reception at the Sundance Film Festival in January — is set to begin its roll-out before national audiences, it's become somewhat overshadowed by the debate over Parker.
Still, actress Katie Garfield -- who in the film plays Catherine Turner, the daughter of a slave owner -- and Fox Searchlight, along with the rest of the cast, are standing by Parker. She learned about the case involving Parker much like the general public did, just a few weeks ago. And yet, she doesn't want speculation about Parker's past to detract from the film, which she said is outstanding.
"I think the message of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ is so clear and so important, and it was portrayed so beautifully in this film, that I think if people are willing to give the movie a chance they’ll be focusing on how impactful and meaningful this film and its message is," she told NBC News. "I think if people can just sort of take the film for what it is, and how important it is, everything will be more than fine."
Garfield said she was deeply saddened to learn that the woman who accused Parker and Celestin of sexual assault had committed suicide four years ago.
"Anytime a young person takes their life in this country that is a tragedy," she said. "I feel so badly for her family and I send prayers and thoughts to them."
Actress Gabrielle Union, who co-stars in "Birth of a Nation" and also learned about the Parker case after the fact, has gone even further, writing a deeply personal Los Angeles Times op-ed in which she directly confronted the charges but also made the case for why the film could create a space for more dialogue.
"It is my hope that we can use this as an opportunity to look within. To open up the conversation. To reach out to organizations which are working hard to prevent these kinds of crimes. And to support its victims," she wrote. "To donate time or money. To play an active role in creating a ripple that will change the ingrained misogyny that permeates our culture."
Still, for some audiences, the damage has been done. Amid the news of his accuser's suicide came trial transcripts, obtained by Deadline, of conversations between her and Parker following their encounter, which the actor maintains was consensual. Some have argued that the conversation depicts Parker intimidating the woman who would go onto accuse him.
This information, coupled with his initial statements that the case represented a "painful" period in his life, struck some as self-serving and tone deaf. In subsequent statements and interviews — most prominently a sit-down with Ebony magazine — Parker has attempted to strike a difficult balance between maintaining his innocence while speaking sensitively about matters of consent.
This tension was on full display during a Q&A session with Parker following a screening of his film at the Toronto Film Festival. Parker was pressed on why he hadn't offered a public apology to his alleged victim by a New York Times reporter, and the filmmaker said: “I’ve addressed this a few times, and I’m sure I’ll address it in different forums. But this is a forum for the film [and] for the other people that are sitting on this stage. It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It does not belong to me. So I definitely don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.”
But some would-be moviegoers aren't satisfied, and have already pledged to boycott "The Birth of a Nation" when it opens next month because of Parker's involvement. According to Garfield, those who choose to boycott will miss out on a "masterpiece."
"I think the thing that makes ‘The Birth of a Nation’ exceptional is the fact that it is not just a movie about slavery. It’s a story about faith and redemption and bravery and that’s very clear throughout the film through the acting, the writing and the cinematography and the way it was produced and marketed," she said. "I think this story is actually pretty uplifting in that it makes you feel revived and hungry for change."
For the 22-year-old Garfield, the film was as much an education for her as she believes it will be for audiences.
"When I went to school and we were learning about Nat Turner, we didn’t learn as much as I learned from the filming of this story and reading the script," she said. "I think people think that Nat Turner just led a rebellion of slaves against white slave owners, [but] he is so much more than a rebellion leader. He was a man of faith who thought that he was called upon by God to liberate his people from the atrocities that they were going through ... he was a man of exceptional bravery."
And she isn't worried that a spate of slavery-themed content may have left audiences feeling fatigued and reticent to revisit an uncomfortable chapter of American history.
"I think just because people want to turn a blind eye to an issue doesn’t mean it didn’t happen," she said. "Slavery was a huge scar on the face of America and I think people need to be having conversations about why that happened and where the hatred that led to slavery came from."
"A lot of what happened in the country at that time stems from hatred and a fear of change, and those are still issues that are really present today," she added.
Despite the challenging subject matter, Garfield knew that she wanted to be a part of the project as soon as she read the screenplay.
"As a young actor, getting to a book role in a movie like this was a true blessing," she said. "This is a really incredible film. It's beautiful. It has so much heart. It tells such a necessary story in a really gorgeous way. People are really in love with it when they see it, and that's why I am really excited for it to come out."