While the controversy over a revived rape case overshadows the opening of "The Birth of a Nation," four of Nate Parker's former Penn State classmates are vehemently backing the director.
LaKeisha Wolf, Assata Richards, Lurie Daniel Favors and Brian Favors were students when Parker and his then-roommate Jean Celestin were charged with raping a woman in 1999, and they have now written a lengthy statement to the Root.
"We are both dismayed and disappointed at the gross and blatant misinformation campaign regarding the events that took place during that time period," the foursome, who were students, staff and alumni during the subsequent trial, said.
Parker was acquitted of the sexual assault in 2001, and the charges against Celestin were eventually dropped. But that hasn't quelled the media outrage over the case -- especially in light of news that the accuser died in 2012 of an apparent suicide.
"We feel compelled to speak truth to this situation as the media has cherry-picked the most salacious elements while ignoring the actual record," the statement from the Penn State alums continued. "We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now."
They also claim that many details of the trial are now being overlooked in the media, such as the accuser's race, as well as the heated racial climate on the campus at the time of the trial. The four also say that allegations of harassment made by the woman are untrue -- especially as the pair were under strict bail conditions -- despite the fact that the university eventually settled with her for $17,500 over the claims.
"Neither Mr. Parker nor Mr. Celestin were named in the civil lawsuit, neither Mr. Parker nor Mr. Celestin were ever interviewed or contacted about that civil suit -- nor were they able to defend themselves in that suit and were not aware of its existence until it was settled," Wolf, Richards, Favors and Favors claim.
"The Birth of a Nation" is set to open on Oct. 7.
Earlier on Thursday, Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences President Cheryl Boone Isaacs encouraged filmgoers to still see the Sundance hit.
"The important thing is for people to see it and enjoy the film, be impressed by the film," she told TMZ. "People need to see this movie. ... Just by the conversation that has gone on at Sundance, it's clearly a movie that filmgoers should go and see."
Read the full statement from LaKeisha Wolf, Assata Richards, Lurie Daniel Favors and Brian Favors below.
Who We Are and Why We're Making This Statement
We are members of the Penn State community who were present during the time when Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin were accused and charged with the rape of a fellow Penn State student. We were present during the entire trial and ultimate exoneration of both Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin. At the time, we were college students, staff and alumni who were deeply involved with countering the violently hostile racial climate that thrived in the Penn State community [pdf]. Today, we are educators, lawyers, professors, academics and entrepreneurs who are actively engaged in community development and advancing social justice. Since our time at Penn State we have dedicated our lives to doing the healing and restorative work for our community and will continue to do so.
We have received several requests for comment on this matter by a wide array of parties and media outlets seeking additional information from people who witnessed the trial and were present during the time leading up to and after the trial. While we have refrained from making public statements, in light of recent media reports, we feel compelled to release this statement. To be clear: We are both dismayed and disappointed at the gross and blatant misinformation campaign regarding the events that took place during that time period. We feel compelled to speak truth to this situation as the media has cherry-picked the most salacious elements while ignoring the actual record.
Our goal in speaking out is to provide accurate information about what really took place during that time. We also hope to encourage our community to embrace as vibrant of a discussion about misogyny, misogynoir and toxic masculinity, as we do about racism and white supremacy.
It is important to note that as a group of people deeply involved in this case, we were saddened to learn of the death of the young woman involved from news reports last week. Even as we make this statement, we are deeply respectful of the pain and loss of her family and friends. We do not and cannot ignore the deep pain that this case, and so many like it, brings to everyone involved.
We believed some 17 years ago that Jean Celestin and Nate Parker were innocent of rape and we believe that now. This belief was supported by the evidence that eventually fully cleared both Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker. Evidence that many media outlets have chosen to ignore, overlook or mischaracterize today.
Our belief in and support of Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker was validated when we witnessed how racially biased the investigators were throughout the years leading up to the trial. This investigation took place during a time period of intense racial hostilities both on and off campus (which you can read more about in depth here [pdf]).
The trial was one of the longest non-murder trials in the history of the area. Here are a few key points related to the investigation and the trial:
1. The woman making the claim was a white college student and the criminal trial was decided by 11 white jurors and one black woman in Centre County, Pa. Nate Parker was fully acquitted at trial and Jean Celestin was wrongly convicted on one charge which he later successfully appealed.
2. Despite what's been widely reported, Jean Celestin ultimately served nearly two years in prison while he fought to clear his name. His conviction was later reversed by the Pennsylvania Superior Court of Appeals and he was fully exonerated. The court that reversed Jean Celestin's conviction overturned less than 15 percent of all the convictions appealed [pdf] in the commonwealth of Pennsylvania that year.
3. Witnesses were threatened by the investigators who were trying to build a case against Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin. As a result of those threats, some witnesses (including one of the undersigned) had to seek legal protection from the very investigators charged with finding the facts.
4. A key prosecution eyewitness changed his statement several times after being threatened and coerced by police investigators.
5. The allegations of torture, stalking and intimidation of the woman involved in the case are absolutely untrue. Neither Mr. Parker, Mr. Celestin, nor any members acting on behalf of the Black Caucus ever stalked or harassed the young woman. As a routine part of the university and police investigation into this matter, both Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin had bail orders that barred them both from certain parts of campus and from approaching the young woman involved. Had those orders been violated, both would have been arrested before their criminal trial. Neither the Black Caucus leadership, nor the group's academic adviser was ever contacted about any supposed harassment of the young woman by black student members.
6. From the date of their arrest until after their trial, both Mr. Parker and Mr. Celestin were under strict bail conditions to have absolutely no contact with the young woman. Had they violated that order, their bail would have been revoked. Claims of harassment were used to support a civil suit filed against Penn State University for payment after the criminal case. Neither Mr. Parker nor Mr. Celestin were named in the civil lawsuit, neither Mr. Parker nor Mr. Celestin were ever interviewed or contacted about that civil suit--nor were they able to defend themselves in that suit and were not aware of its existence until it was settled.
7. Contrary to repeated inaccurate media reports, there is nothing to suggest that the ruling had anything to do with prior intimate contact with the young woman involved. The jury made no mention of this when they rendered their verdict. The jury's decision was based on prosecution and defense witnesses and evidence in the court record that indicated that the young woman was both conscious and engaged during the evening in question.
8. Misinformation suggests that a spiral into depression was triggered by the alleged incident in 1999. However, court records and testimony by medical professionals revealed a history of chronic depression that dated back to childhood and the use of antidepressant medication that preceded this event.
9. Publications and the public have relied heavily on partial excerpts of one recorded phone call. There were multiple recorded transcripts calls. These multiple calls, in their entirety, were played in court for the jury to consider and to provide proper context to the narrative.
10. Celestin and Mr. Parker have always maintained that what happened that evening was consensual and never hid from the complexities of this even when they were facing more than 20 years in prison. Mr. Parker has spoken about this case dating as far back as 2008. Mr. Celestin wrote a memoir about his experience after he was exonerated which he plans to publish. He has spoken about his experience in the community for more than 10 years.
Copies of the relevant court documents that support the claims contained in this letter are located at factchecktoday.
It is unfortunate but still necessary to state that some of us are women who have survived sexual violence. We know that rape and sexual violence are rampant throughout our society. We also know that our society does not typically engage in discussions around this topic in ways that challenge notions of toxic masculinity. We know that most rape survivors never come forward because of how rape culture can prevent us from receiving justice.
Also, some of us also have family members who were wrongfully convicted of crimes they did not commit--including those who were falsely accused and convicted of rape charges. Family members who spent decades in prison before being released. We recognize that racism and white supremacy have historically combined around notions of sexuality and at times have created climates where lynch mob mentalities resulted in the destruction of entire black communities and black lives. Many of us viewed this incident involving Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker as yet another example of the blatant racism and violent hostility faced by black students on Penn State's campus. We ask that you read more about that time period here [pdf] to better understand the racial terror we faced.
Our belief in Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker's innocence was validated as we sat through the court trial, heard all of the evidence and witnessed a justice system that was trying its best to lock both men up for as long as possible. But that system couldn't bury them completely. The facts that spoke to their innocence, and the community that was unwilling to allow two additional young black men to be wrongfully convicted of something they did not do, would not allow it.
While we were deeply disappointed with the personal choices in this matter, we stood with and supported Mr. Celestin and Mr. Parker then because we believed they were innocent of the crimes of which they were charged. Our disappointment also stems from our belief that far too many young men participate in patriarchal, misogynistic structures without consideration of the long-term implications. We acknowledge that we can be disappointed and desire that they had not been in that room, while recognizing that they should not have been jailed for something that they were not guilty of. The facts of their story (in their totality--not the snippets referenced by media outlets) made sense. We made the choice to stand up and speak out against injustice some 17 years ago, and despite those who may attempt to attack or discredit us again from near and far, we are choosing to make the same choice today.
Nate Parker and Jean Celestin have never shied away from this incident and have always taken accountability--we, members of their village, required them to take responsibility. And, they have owned this incident in their personal lives and have used this moment to empower themselves to be change agents in their communities ever since. Indeed, both of them have frequently spoken about this period in their lives in an attempt to influence others in our community to make better choices and to build healthier communities.
This story is Nate and Jean's testimony--one of growth and maturation. Though this story is a challenging one, we refused to leave them behind almost two decades ago or be silent now because we are committed to creating true justice. Indeed, we are talking about this moment in their lives precisely because this situation was not the end of their story. Now more than ever, our village will not allow their critically important and timely contributions to be derailed by a campaign of untruths or distorted perceptions. It is our hope and prayer that the outpouring of emotion and discussion that this topic has generated can ignite a process toward healing in our families and communities--a process that is so desperately needed if we are going to bring about true social change.
LaKeisha Wolf, Artist & Entrepreneur, PSU Alumni
Dr. Assata Richards, PSU Alumni
Lurie Daniel Favors, Esq., PSU Alumni
Brian Favors, Education Consultant, M.Ed.; M.S.Ed, PSU Alumni