Ten months ago, Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" -- which opens Friday -- looked like the favorite to win Best Picture at next year's Academy Awards. Then came reports that a woman who accused Parker of sexual assault 17 years ago had committed suicide in 2012. A backlash grew quickly, and commentators criticized Parker for using graphic rape scenes in his film for dramatic purposes. Here's a timeline of how the film became such a source of debate.
August 20, 1999 -- Parker's accuser, then an 18-year-old freshman at Penn State University, said that she blacked out after having some drinks at a bar while waiting for Parker. Some time after Parker's arrival at midnight, Parker invited the accuser back to his apartment. The accuser said she remembered
going in and out of consciousness, and Parker and his wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin, having sex with her. Parker testified that this sex was consensual -- and continues to assert this.
September 1999: The accuser met with a doctor who told her she had been sexually assaulted, according to The Daily Beast
. She then called Parker and recorded their conversation. Parker insisted that the sex was consensual and denied that Celestin was involved.
October 13, 1999: The accuser reported her assault allegation to local authorities, who taped another call between her and Parker in which Parker identified Jean Celestin as the other man who had sex with her. A week later, Parker and Celestin were arrested on rape and sexual assault charges and suspended from the Penn State wrestling team, though they did not lose their scholarships. This is a picture of Parker at the 1999 NCAA championships.
November 1999: According to the accuser's complaint
against Penn State, she was subjected to continued harassment after Parker's arrest. This included Parker and Celestin hiring a private investigator to publicly expose her as the accuser, and continued bullying by Parker and his friends outside buildings where she had class, she said. She also said that she attempted suicide after requests for aid from campus officials went largely unheeded.
U.S. District Court
2000: The accuser dropped out of Penn State after her first semester. She continued to live in State College, where she claimed that the harassment continued even though she was no longer a student.
October 2001: Parker was cleared of all charges, while Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault. Judge Thomas Kistler sentenced Celestin to a maximum of one year in prison -- lower than the mandatory sentence of three to six years -- and delayed the sentence to give Celestin time to graduate.
December 2001: After Celestin's delayed sentence sparked objections on campus, Penn State expelled Celestin for two years,
with the possibility of receiving his degree after that period. Parker transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he learned about Nat Turner's slave rebellion during an African-American studies course.
U.S. District Court
2002: The accuser sued Penn State, accusing the school of failing to properly address her assault and subsequent harassment. According to Penn State student newspaper The Daily Collegian
, the case was settled and the accuser received $17,500.
2003: Celestin's appeal was denied by the Pennsylvania Superior Court, which also ordered that his sentence be increased. According to The Daily Collegian
, he was given a new sentence of two to four years in prison, which began the following year.
2005: A year into his sentence, the Pennsylvania Superior Court overturned Celestin's conviction. According to The Daily Collegian
, it was ruled that Celestin's defense attorney did not perform due diligence in the case and did not object to "hearsay statements" from the prosecution. The district attorney elected not to retry the case, and Celestin was released.
2012: Nate Parker's accuser committed suicide at a rehab facility by overdosing on sleeping pills. That same year, Parker starred in the Tuskegee Airmen biopic "Red Tails," the Spike Lee
film "Red Hook Summer," and the crime thriller "Arbitrage," the last of which won him a supporting actor award at the African-American Film Critics Association.
January 25, 2016: Parker released "The Birth of a Nation" at the Sundance Film Festival, with Celestin receiving story credit. The film received a standing ovation and the top jury prize at the festival. The film also set a record for the biggest sale at Sundance
after Fox Searchlight purchased it for $17.5 million, and the film immediately received Oscar buzz in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite protests.
August 16, 2016: Variety reported the suicide of Nate Parker's accuser, who left behind a ten-year-old son. Her death certificate reportedly stated that she suffered from "PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse." "I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name," wrote Parker in a statement. "Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in."
September 2: "The Birth of a Nation" co-star and rape survivor Gabrielle Union
wrote an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times
: "As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly… Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst."
September 29: Sharon Loeffler, the sister of the accuser, wrote a guest column in Variety condemning "The Birth of a Nation," particularly for using a fictional rape of Nat Turner's wife as a turning point that leads him to starting his rebellion. "I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape," she wrote. "Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister’s memory."
October 2: "60 Minutes" aired an Anderson Cooper interview
with Parker in which the director was asked whether he would apologize for what happened at Penn State. "I was vindicated. I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here," Parker said. "Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is—no.”
October 7: "The Birth of a Nation is released in theaters nationwide, with a protest group holding a candlelight vigil at the Cinerama Dome in Hollywood in memory of the accuser.