The following is a script from “Nate Parker” which aired on Oct. 2, 2016. Anderson Cooper is the correspondent. Keith Sharman, producer.
Nate Parker is a 36-year-old actor whose new movie, “The Birth of a Nation,” is about a little known slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831. At early screenings, the movie received standing ovations, and in Hollywood, long criticized for a lack of diversity, there’s been talk of Oscar nominations. The slave revolt on which the film is based is a real-life event from the past that Nate Parker hopes can help blacks and whites confront America’s fraught racial present, but an episode from Parker’s own past is threatening the film’s upcoming release and the filmmaker’s future in Hollywood.
Seventeen years ago when he was a student at Penn State University, Nate Parker and his roommate were accused of rape. Parker was found not guilty in a court of law, but now, on the cusp of stardom, he finds himself back on trial -- this time in the court of public opinion.
“The Birth of a Nation” is a film about Nat Turner, a slave and preacher who believed he was called by God to lead a rebellion to end slavery.
Nate Parker, who plays Nat Turner, not only stars in the movie, he wrote, produced, and directed it. Parker spent eight years struggling to bring his version of Nat Turner’s story to the screen.
Anderson Cooper: Do you think it’s fair to say you became obsessed with Nat Turner? With making this movie about Nat Turner?
Nate Parker: Yeah, I came-- I became obsessed with what I believed to be the potential impact.
When “The Birth of a Nation” was first shown at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the impact was immediate. It won top prizes, and Hollywood studios came calling.
Fox Searchlight paid $17.5 million for this independent film, the most money any studio had ever paid for a movie at Sundance.
But with fame, came scrutiny, about two months ago Nate Parker’s past began to make headlines.
[Charlie Rose on CBS This Morning: One of Hollywood’s rising stars is facing tough questions about his past. Nate Parker…]
There are conflicting accounts of what happened at Penn State one night in 1999.
Nate Parker was a 19-year-old sophomore wrestler when he and his fellow teammate Jean Celestin were accused by a female student of rape. Both men admitted they had sex at the same time with the accuser, but they said it was consensual. The woman, whom we aren’t naming, admitted to a prior consensual encounter with Nate Parker, but on the night in question had consumed a lot of alcohol, and said she was in and out of consciousness.
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel guilty about anything that happened that night?
Nate Parker: I don’t feel guilty.
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel you did something morally wrong?
Nate Parker: As a Christian man, just-- being in that situation, yeah, sure. I’m 36 years old right now. And my faith is very important to me. You know, so looking back through that lens, I definitely feel like-- it’s not the lens that I had when I was 19 years old.
Nate Parker was found not guilty of rape, but what wasn’t widely known until Variety Magazine discovered it in August was that his accuser had dropped out of Penn State and after suffering years of psychological problems killed herself in 2012.
Nate Parker: I had no idea. I had absolutely no idea. I found out in the news.
Anderson Cooper: What did you think when you heard that?
Nate Parker: I was devastated. It was shocking. You know, I couldn’t believe it.
Anderson Cooper: You haven’t apologized to the woman or her family?
Nate Parker: Uh-huh (affirm).
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel you have anything to apologize for?
Nate Parker: I’ll say this, you know, I do think it’s tragic, so much of what’s happened. And the fact that the family’s had to endure with respect to this woman not being here. But I do-- I also think that-- you know, and I don’t want to harp on this and I don’t want to be disrespectful of them at all. You know, but, you know, at some point I have to say it. You know, I was falsely accused. You know, I went to court. And I sat in trial. You know, I was vinc-- I was-- I was vindicated. I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. You know, I feel terrible that, you know, her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is-- no.
“I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. You know, I feel terrible that, you know, her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is-- no.“
There’s been withering criticism of Parker online and in print. In Los Angeles, “The Birth of a Nation” posters appeared on the street with the word rapist.
Anderson Cooper: Did you see those?
Nate Parker: I didn’t see. I didn’t see any of those. Of course, I heard. I don’t want to make myself the victim, you know, to-- to-- it’s-- you have to fight back the instinct to defend yourself. You know—um, you just gotta take it.
While Parker was found not guilty at trial, his friend Jean Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and went to prison, but his conviction was eventually overturned and his criminal record expunged.
Both men remain friends, and Celestin, a writer, helped Parker with “The Birth of a Nation.”
Anderson Cooper: Was it a mistake to have him involved in the film?
Nate Parker: I don’t think so at all, the reality is Jean went to jail for something he did not do so when it came time to write this story, I said, “Well, you want to help with this?”
Anderson Cooper: Were you surprised that there was criticism that you continued an association with him?
Nate Parker: Yes.
We met with Nate Parker in June, months before the story of his trial was widely known.
He was excited audiences would soon have the chance to see his film. It was not, he said, an easy movie to make.
Turner’s bloody rebellion against slavery only lasted two days, but of the estimated 60 white people he and his enslaved followers killed, many were women and children.
Anderson Cooper: Are-- are you ready for criticism that, “Look, the film isn’t 100 percent historically accurate.”
Nate Parker: Uh-huh (affirm). There’s never been a film that was 100 percent historically accurate. That’s why they say based on a true story and doesn’t say, “A true story.”
Anderson Cooper: Did you always plan on calling this film “Birth of a Nation”?
Nate Parker: I did. Before I ever wrote the first line of dialogue?
Parker picked the title because of the original film called “The Birth of a Nation,” directed by D.W. Griffith in 1915.
It’s a silent film that’s considered a technical masterpiece for its time but it’s also a movie that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and solidified stereotypes of African Americans in Hollywood that Parker says persist today.
Nate Parker: Why is it important that D.W. Griffith-- that we-- that we-- that we recognize what he did to Hollywood? Oh, well, it’ll give us a better understanding of why we’re having conversations about diversity now.
Anderson Cooper: So how is Nat Turner the birth of our nation?
Nate Parker: Well, because in the same way that I’m reclaiming the title, I’m reclaiming a hero. You know, Nat Turner, birth of a nation of resisters. Of people that were truly willing to to die for absolute freedom and liberation.
Nate Parker was never taught about Nat Turner’s revolt in school despite the fact that it took place in Southampton County Virginia, less than 50 miles from where Parker grew up.
Nate Parker: Never once did I hear about Nat Turner.
Anderson Cooper: So, it wasn’t until college that you actually read something about Nat Turner?
Nate Parker: That’s right. I started to read, and I was like, “Oh, my goodness. Like this guy was real, and he existed.”
Anderson Cooper: Why is it important to know what happened to Nat Turner? To know what he did?
Nate Parker: Well, why is it important to know about George Washington? Why is it important to know about the Revolutionary War?
Anderson Cooper: But you’re po-- saying that what Nat Turner did, and those around him did, you’re putting it on par with George Washington? With the founders of this country.
Nate Parker: Absolutely. 100 percent. I mean just by virtue of the vocabulary. Of the words they used. You know, when you think of, “Give me liberty or give me death,” Nat Turner embodied that. Take up arms against your oppressor. Nat Turner embodied that too. He just did.
When he was researching Nat Turner’s story for the film, Parker spent time in Southampton County. The fields where the rebellion began look much like they did 185 years ago and above them, the Confederate flag still flies. Turner was hanged from a tree when his revolt failed, but there aren’t any memorials in Southampton County to honor him, just this small plaque on the side of a country road.
Anderson Cooper: You came here to basically do research.
Nate Parker: Yeah did some research.
At the county courthouse there are some papers and artifacts related to Turner.
Anderson Cooper: Do you feel like you understand Nat Turner? That you know who he is?
Nate Parker: I think I do. To know what Nat Turner wanted, you don’t have to only know Nat Turner. You know, when you talk about freedom and liberation, these are constants, you know what I mean? It’s the-- freedom’s binary. You’re either free or you’re not. And so for him, in fighting, as a preacher, as saying that, “If this Bible that I’m being taught is real, then these people are wrong. If they’re wrong, and I am a person that is moving as the hand of God, then I have to do something to subvert this system.”
Rick Francis: This is Nat Turner’s sword.
We were shown the sword that Turner is believed to have used during the uprising, by Rick Francis, the county clerk, who happens to be a descendent of the family that owned Nat Turner. He doesn’t see Turner as a heroic figure -- at least 17 of his ancestors were killed in the rebellion.
Anderson Cooper: When you see this, what do you think?
Nate Parker: I think there’s power in it. I think it represents something very clear, you know? Resistance is an option, you know? This is not only the identity of Nat Turner, but it’s also the identity of America, you know? Subjugation leads to revolution. And sometimes, it’s done with a sword.
Though Nat Turner failed to end slavery, his actions did strike terror into the hearts of white Southerners. Some residents we spoke to were worried that Nate Parker’s film would open old wounds. He says that’s exactly the point.
Nate Parker: I don’t want to make a story that’s digestible. You know, I want you to have heartburn, you know what I mean? I want this to be something that is incendiary, that-- that really makes us think and makes us question who we are. And I think that is what Nat Turner does.
[From film: I see how for every verse they use to support our bondage there’s another demanding our freedom.]
Parker believes Turner’s example is just as relevant today as it was when he led his revolt against oppression in 1831.
Nate Parker: There’s a line in the film where his wife says, “They’re killing people everywhere for no all-- reason at all but being black.” …
Nate Parker: This was the norm then. So to is it now in many ways, where unarmed black men are being killed and there’s no recourse. And we’re becoming desensitized to the fact that there’s no recourse.
Anderson Cooper: So what is the message for today?
Nate Parker: For me, one, resistance is an option.
Anderson Cooper: And what does resistance mean?
Nate Parker: Having a riotous disposition toward injustice. Any injustice we see.
Anderson Cooper: Does this encourage violence?
Nate Parker: Well, it-- I don’t think it encourages violence. I think it encourages action. But we have different tools than Nat Turner had. Nat Turner had axe handles and broomsticks. You know? We have the worldwide web. If Nat Turner had Instagram or a Twitter, said, “This is what we’re doing,” or, “We want to be free,” and he had followers, I think it would have been a different revolution. But the reality is he had what he had.
The film “The Birth of a Nation” will be opening in theaters this week. Its success may depend not just on audiences’ interest in Nat Turner but on their opinions about Nate Parker.
Anderson Cooper: There are some people who’ve said they’re not gonna see this film because of the accusations against you. What do you say to them?
Nate Parker: Well, I do feel that’s unfortunate. You know, I think that Nat Turner, as a hero, what he did in history is bigger than me. I think it’s bigger than all of us.