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‘Birth of a Nation’ Opening Sparks Silent Vigil by Sexual Assault Activists

A candlelight memorial was set up in Hollywood in support of rape victims as controversy continues to swirl around director Nate Parker

On the eve of the nationwide release of Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a silent vigil was held to honor unnamed sexual assault victims outside of the Arclight Cinemas in Hollywood, where early screenings of the film were being held. The vigil came in response to resurfaced allegations against Parker, who was accused and acquitted of sexual assault in 1999 by a Penn State student who committed suicide four years ago.

The sit-in was attended by approximately 35 demonstrators, who laid out candles and sat silently in a circle in front of the theater for about an hour prior to the screening. The event was organized by rape survivor Elyse Cizek and the feminist group F–k Rape Culture, which was heavily involved in the protests surrounding the Brock Turner Stanford rape case.

Prior to the event, Cizek posted a statement to the vigil’s Facebook page criticizing Parker and other filmmakers who use sexual assault against women as a plot point that drives the motives of male protagonist.

“Nate Parker and Fox Searchlight, I am your audience … I refuse to give you my money or my praise for this film,” she wrote. “I refuse to support a project that insists on treating me and other survivors of rape as plot accessories. I refuse to have my story written and glorified for the advancement of a man who refuses to support my right to exist of my own truth.”

Still, the organization said that they recognized the film’s importance in the eyes of some moviegoers as a potential catalyst for more black representation in film, and encouraged people coming to the Arclight to view the Sundance hit to join them in their vigil.

“In doing this vigil, we want to remind people that survivors of sexual assault often don’t have a voice,” FRC member Stephanie Filo-Jones said. “But at the same time, us being silent is a way of respecting of the fact that ‘Birth of a Nation’ is a huge advancement for people of color as well. They should both be important discussions.”

In “The Birth of a Nation,” Parker plays Nat Turner, a slave who staged a rebellion against plantation owners in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of dozens of white people, and which sparked the deaths of hundreds of free and enslaved black people by white militias in retaliation. Turner’s rebellion lasted two days, but Turner himself evaded capture for two months before he was caught, convicted, and sentenced to death.

Upon its release at Sundance in January, “The Birth of a Nation” received the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize. At its first screening, the film was given a standing ovation before the screening even began. The film received rave reviews and was believed to be a front-runner for the 2017 Oscars as its buzz had coincided with the #OscarsSoWhite protests and increased demands for better representation of minorities in film.

But in August, the film’s publicity took a downturn after allegations of sexual assault committed by Parker 17 years ago resurfaced. According to the allegations, Parker sexually assaulted an 18-year-old Penn State freshman with his wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin, with whom he later wrote the story for “The Birth of a Nation.” The victim also accused Parker and Celestin of continuously harassing her for months after she first reported the incident.

Parker was acquitted of the charges in 2001, and Celestin served a year in prison before his conviction was overturned on the grounds that his attorney did not properly challenge inadmissible evidence. Parker has continued to assert his innocence, claiming that the accuser had given him consent.

While reviews of “The Birth of a Nation” have remained mostly positive even after the allegations resurfaced, some critics have attacked the film for using a fictional rape incident as a key plot point. The film depicts Turner’s wife being beaten and raped by slave catchers. Gabrielle Union‘s character, Esther, is also offered sexually by her owner to a white man against her will. These assaults are treated in the film as a major motivating factor behind Turner’s decision to start the rebellion. Sharon Loeffer, the sister of Parker’s accuser, said that she found 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.”

After the vigil, Filo-Jones said that she was hopeful that the public is becoming more aware and sensitive of the struggles that rape victims face.”

“We see sexual assault in the news so much more now than we have seen in the past,” she said. “I hope that with this movie coming out and with the story of Parker’s allegations coming out, I’m hoping that this dialogue can continue that people can stop victim-blaming and recognize that this is a serious issue that people need to talk about.