“As important and ground-breaking as this film is,” actress Gabrielle Union wrote Friday, addressing the 17-year-old rape allegations against Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker, “I cannot take these allegations lightly.”
In the ongoing moral firestorm engulfing Parker and his 1999 rape case, it took Union speaking out in a Los Angeles Times op-ed to cut through the public excoriation, tone deaf self-preservation, and awards season posturing that’s dominated the debate over just what to do with Parker and the sexual assault he was accused and acquitted of nearly two decades ago.
Parker attempted his own apologia tour by giving selective interviews to Deadline Hollywood and Variety, publications tellingly aimed at Oscar voters, but forgot the most important part: to seem apologetic. He sorely lacked the sensitivity, awareness, and perspective that Union brings to such difficult topics as rape and consent in her piece, which begins by acknowledging the personal pain of being a survivor of rape herself.
“Twenty-four years ago I was raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store where I was then working,” Union courageously wrote. “Two years ago I signed on to a brilliant script called The Birth of a Nation, to play a woman who was raped.
“One month ago I was sent a story about Nate Parker, the very talented writer, director and star of this film. Seventeen years ago Nate Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault,” she continued. “Four years ago the woman who accused him committed suicide.”
The death by suicide of the woman who accused then-Penn State classmates Parker and Jean Celestin, his Birth of a Nation co-writer, of having sex with her while she was too intoxicated to consent, was a shock to those following the case—even, seemingly, to Parker, who apparently had no idea before it broke as a news story in Variety. He hadn’t thought about the young woman in years, he told Ebony.
Union’s experience in the summer of 1992, a horrific event that also happened years ago before she became famous, was fundamentally different from Parker’s for obvious reasons—but unlike him, she never tried to erase it from her story. In a 2012 interview with O Magazine, she said it influenced the projects she accepted and turned down if she felt uneasy about her potential collaborators.
“In my career, there have been roles I haven’t taken because someone involved with the project gave me a bad vibe,” Union said. “I don’t care how much money is on the table: No job is worth feeling uneasy every day.”
Union turns in a heart-rending performance in the Nat Turner biopic as Esther, a woman whose rape at the hands of white slave-owning men is one of several unbearable injustices that drive Turner (Parker) and his fellow slaves to stage a violent rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Learning about Parker’s case only a month ago after working with him on Birth of a Nation, she wrote Friday, left her in “a state of stomach-churning confusion.”
“I took this role because I related to the experience,” she wrote. “I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.”
Union and husband Dwyane Wade have three sons, she added, and “we are making an effort to teach our sons about affirmative consent. We explain that the onus is on them to explicitly ask if their partner consents. And we tell them that a shrug or a smile or a sigh won’t suffice. They have to hear ‘yes.’”
In addressing the Parker allegations, she acknowledges the thorny situation she finds herself in ahead of the film’s release. Union is expected to appear alongside her director at next week’s high profile Toronto Film Festival premiere, and the film will be distributed in October by Fox Searchlight, who will want awards and box office returns on the pricey $17.5 million they shelled out for the film at Sundance.
“I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence,” wrote Union, reckoning with her own involvement on the fringes of the Nate Parker story. “To talk about this stain that lives on in our psyches. I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary.”
As the only person close to Parker to criticize his actions and sympathize not with him, but with his alleged victim, Union has done what few public figures dare to do: hold him accountable for his questionable actions. Few other performers working with filmmakers accused of criminal misdeeds have been emboldened to speak so publicly about the difficulty of divorcing a person’s actions from their art.
In many ways, as an established actress with no repercussions to fear from taking a shot at her director and an African-American woman addressing a case in which race and gender collide, she might have been the only person who could have done so. And maybe it will save Birth of a Nation from going unseen, or help the public reconcile their horror over the accusations once leveled at Parker with a film he made about other horrors that should not be forgotten.
But she’s also leading the way toward the conversations we need to have around sexual consent and cases like these, regardless of whether anyone involved is famous or someday might be. Union calls for continued education of consent at home and in communities, to support programs that seek to prevent sex crimes and support victims, to chip away at the kind of male privilege and entitlement and misogyny that has allowed rape culture to fester and ooze its way into society.
Parker’s legal case ended years ago, but it will likely follow him forever as questions continue to haunt him and anyone troubled by the details of that night, or by the campaign of harassment Parker and Celestin allegedly waged against their accuser, including revealing her identity around campus. Similar issues have already arisen in another high profile rape case set to begin next month, with lawyers for NBA star Derrick Rose attempting to expose and shame the identity of the woman accusing him in a civil suit and pending criminal suit of drugging and gang raping her with two of his friends while she was incapacitated.
Union’s words ring out like a bell, and should, long after Nate Parker and Birth of a Nation’s time in the spotlight comes and goes: “Even if she never said ‘no,’ silence certainly does not equal ‘yes.’”