A look back at embattled Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker's childhood and early career

By Michael Miller
August 18, 2016 03:00 PM
Matt Sayles/Invision/AP

Nate Parker became an overnight sensation in Hollywood after his film The Birth of a Nation, which he wrote, starred in, directed and produced, earned universal praise, scoring an unprecedented $17 million deal at the Sundance Film Festival and earning him glowing comparisons to Orson Welles.

But the acclaim has been overshadowed by his involvement in a 1999 rape case after recent reports surfaced that the woman had committed suicide in 2012, shining a harsh spotlight on a man who endured a troubled childhood before charting his path to stardom.

Birth of a Nation, a historical drama that tells the story of Nat Turner’s famous 1831 slave revolt, has already gained early Oscar buzz, and it was a longtime passion project for Parker.

“Far too often, as a black actor … you receive a hundred scripts in a year, and two of them you feel represent the experience of the black male with strength and power and integrity,” he told PEOPLE in February. “And I felt the need to, instead of complaining about that, to find a way to change it with my art. So I started writing. I wrote several scripts, but Nat Turner and his life was one that I wanted to really delve into as a writer.”

The film’s seemingly golden path to awards season has now been marred by the disturbing events from Parker’s past.

While a student at Penn State University in 1999, Parker was charged, tried and subsequently acquitted of raping an unnamed female classmate. Jean McGianni Celestin, Parker’s longtime friend and collaborator on Birth of a Nation, was also charged but was convicted. Following an appeal by Celestin, a judge dismissed a second trial after the accuser opted not to testify.

The incident was thrust back into the spotlight earlier this week, when Deadline published incendiary pieces of a transcript from the case. The revelation that the accuser had committed suicide in 2012 added fuel to the fire, although there is no evidence her suicide was directly related to the trial.

Parker addressed the situation in a statement posted to Facebook on Wednesday, in which he asserted his innocence while admitting that he looks back “on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

Yet Parker’s teenage years, outside of the events of the trial, were relatively calm compared to his childhood, when his single, teenage mom struggled to keep him out of trouble.

A Troubled Youth

A native of Norfolk, Virginia, Parker was born on Nov. 18, 1979 to a mother – Carolyn – who was only 17 when she had him. Carolyn never married his biological father, instead tying the knot with the man who would give Parker his last name, according to a 2007 profile of the actor in The Virginian-Pilot.

By the time Parker entered middle school, the marriage had fizzled, and Carolyn fell in love with an Air Force man named Walter Whitfield. Just as Parker had begun to develop a relationship with his biological father, his mother and Whitfield got married and moved the family to Maine.

When Parker’s biological dad, whom he had kept in contact with since the move, died unexpectedly of cancer, the combined forces of the death, the new environment and a domineering new stepdad became too much for the 11-year-old to handle.

“He was quite depressed,” Carolyn Whitfield told the Pilot. “He was young and didn’t know how to channel his anger.”

VIDEO: Inside Nate Parker’s 1999 Rape Trial

Parker began to take out his frustrations on classmates, starting fights on the playground during the day before returning home to clash with his stepdad at night. “I didn’t want anyone taking my father’s place,” said, according to the Pilot.

Carolyn told the paper she had trouble keeping her son in check. “Whatever the rules were – and my husband had a lot – Nate would try to go just past the rule … I couldn’t handle him.”

She finally reached out to her brother, Jay Combs, for help and suggested he take in Parker for a while.

Channeling the Rage

Parker moved in with his uncle at 14. Combs, a former high school wrestler, believed the sport kept him out of trouble as a kid, and figured it might have the same effect on his nephew. “I thought it would be a way he could channel his anger and release it without getting in trouble,” he told the Pilot.

Parker began wrestling at Princeton Anne High School, and despite a complete lack of training, he began to impress coaches with his raw athleticism. His mom moved the family back to Hampton Roads, Virginia, when a relative got sick, and as a junior there he placed third in the state wrestling championships.

Hoping to place her son in a position to turn his newfound talent into a scholarship, Carolyn transferred Parker to Great Bridge High School, where legendary wrestling coach Steve Martin was running an elite program.

Martin took on the inexperienced pupil, later explaining to the Pilot that the two developed a bond, and that Martin eventually started confiding in him.

But outside of the violence on the mat, Parker was turning his life around under Martin’s tough love. “He was the first person to call me a derelict,” Parker told the Pilot. “I’d never heard the word. But he told me if I wanted to be in his program, there were certain things I wouldn’t do. There was a way to be.”

Parker placed third in the High School National Wrestling Championships in his senior year, earning him high school All-American honors and a full scholarship to Penn State.

The Trial

In October of 1999, Carolyn received a scared phone call from her son. “Mama, some stuff that’s going to come out in the papers is really going to hurt you,” she told the Pilot she remembers him saying. “I want you to know from my soul, I swear to you it’s not true.”

It was the beginning of his sophomore year when he and Celestin, a friend from the wrestling team, were charged with rape and sexual assault of an 18-year-old freshman. She told police that after a night of drinking, the two men had performed sexual acts on her while she was sleeping on Parker’s futon.

The case went to trial, and Parker was eventually acquitted. Celestin was convicted but later had the ruling overturned when the accuser failed to testify.

The alleged victim later sued Penn State, claiming the school mishandled the situation by allowing Parker and Celestin to stay on campus in the lead up to the trial, during which time she claimed the two men harassed her on campus. She was awarded a $17,500 settlement in the case.

Parker’s girlfriend at the time, Sarah DiSanto, broke up with him during the trial, but eventually took him back after the charges were dropped, according to the Pilot. The two would go on to marry in the summer of 2007.

A New Calling

Parker transferred to the University of Oklahoma after the rape trial, and graduated with honors, earning a degree in management science and information systems.

After school, Parker began designing websites, later describing the work to the Pilot as “good money, but not exactly thrilling.” He added, “I didn’t feel like it was my calling.”

His true calling came to him on a chance trip to a talent search in Dallas, Texas, where his friend, an aspiring model, was hoping to land a gig. While waiting for her to finish an audition, a man approached:

“You ever acted?” Parker remembers he asked.

“No never,” he replied.

Nevertheless, John Simmons, who represents Parker to this day, believed the young computer wiz had “the look.”

“You can just see it in some people,” he later told the Pilot. “A burning ember that will become great talent one day.”

Nate Parker (foreground) in The Birth of a Nation
Jahi Chikwendiu

Simmons asked Parker to read a scene from Fast and Furious, and after watching his performance, told him, “You have to move to Los Angeles immediately,” according to The Washington Post.

Parker listened. “At the end of reading my first scene, I knew this was the passion of my life,” he told the Pilot. “The way it made me feel, it was like winning a match times a hundred.”

So he quit his job, packed his car with just his clothes and his laptop, and left.

“I didn’t even have time to have a yard sale,” he told The Washington Post. “All I had was my computer and my clothes. I got on the 40, hit the pin and was on my way to L.A.”

Welcome to Hollywood

Parker found refuge on another aspiring actor’s couch and began grinding his way to stardom. Simmons hooked Parker up with an acting coach, and before long commercial spots gave way to television spots, which slowly turned into bit parts in small movies.

His biggest role up to that point came in 2007’s Pride starring Terrence Howard, and a year later he snagged an audition for another Howard film, The Great Debaters, costarring and directed by Denzel Washington.

After a nerve-racking audition, Washington called Parker back to meet his fellow cast members. “You’re my guy,” Parker told the Pilot he remembers Washington saying. “I’m giving you the chance of a lifetime.”

Parker, who just three years earlier had never acted before, seized the opportunity and earned positive reviews for his performance.

Parker parlayed the breakout role into well-received supporting performances in films like Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, Arbitrage alongside Richard Gere, and Red Tails, the historical biopic about the Tuskegee Airmen.

But the story of Nat Turner was always on his mind. “It’s interesting because I became a fan and supporter of Nat Turner well before I was a filmmaker,” Parker, who grew up just 40 miles from the site of Turner’s rebellion, recently told PEOPLE.

After learning about the revolt leader in college, Parker said, “I immediately felt the need, back when I was a managing tech engineer, to attach myself to Nat Turner. And to research him and learn about him and try to find ways into his life that I could apply to my life.”

After finding success as an actor, he began researching and working on a screenplay, and nearly seven years later, Parker is finally seeing the fruits of his labor.

Nate Parker at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival
Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP

Personal Life

Parker is now a father of five, having recently welcomed his fourth daughter with wife DiSanto. His eldest, also a daughter, is from a previous relationship.

“My father passed away when I was very young so I was head of household for a very long time,” he told PEOPLE in February. “Whether it came to cooking food or having to braid hair to get kids out of the door for school, I’ve been one that has – with the help of my mother – has been a father figure for a lot of young ladies.”