When Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, it made headlines for its record-breaking $17 million deal with Fox Searchlight and instantly generated Oscar buzz. But since then, the film has been in the news for another reason: renewed attention on a college rape case involving the film’s director, producer and star, Nate Parker.
In 1999, Parker and his friend Jean Celestin, with whom Parker collaborated on Birth of a Nation, were accused of sexual assault by an 18-year-old female classmate at Penn State University. Parker was charged, tried and acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty but later acquitted on an appeal. News later surfaced that their accuser committed suicide in 2012.
The controversy has loomed over Parker and Birth of Nation, as the film heads into theaters on Friday. Here’s a timeline of events of the case.
Aug. 19, 1999: The accuser, referred to as Jane Doe in court documents, claims that she spent time with Parker in her dorm room. The two had met earlier in the summer through a mutual friend before arriving on the Pennsylvania State University campus. While testifying, the alleged victim said that the friend had told her that Parker was “dog” but she “did like him.” Parker’s accuser said she invited him there so the meeting was on her “territory.”
According to her testimony, she and Parker kissed, and he tried to pull down her panties, but she stopped him because she did not know him that well yet and then “performed oral sex on him.” She says she did this because she “didn’t want to have sex, but didn’t want to leave it at nothing.”
Aug. 20, 1999: According to the alleged victim’s court testimony, she and Parker meet for a date at a local bar called the Silver Screen. Originally, the alleged victim plans to bring a friend with her for Parker’s roommate, but the friend is unable to attend so she goes alone. Parker is not there when she arrives, and she strikes up a conversation with another man, who buys her “four to five” drinks. She then spots her friend, Rugigana Kavamahanga, whom she invites to come over in the hopes the other man will leave, because he’s “creeping” her out. In her testimony, she claims that Parker arrived at the Silver Screen around midnight, two hours after she did.
Aug. 21, 1999: The early morning of the 21st is the time of the alleged rape. The alleged victim claims that Parker had invited her back to his apartment, saying she was “too drunk” to return to main campus. She fell asleep in Parker’s bed after agreeing that she would “take his room to sleep.” She claims that after she fell asleep, she woke to find Parker “having intercourse” with her. She alleges that Parker and his roommate, Celestin, raped her while she was unconscious and intoxicated.
Sept. 7, 1999: The accuser tells Dr. Anna Shallcross, who later testifies in the trial, that she has been sexually assaulted. In the trial, Shallcross says that her cervix showed signs of inflammation, from “infection or some type of trauma.”
Oct. 1999: The accuser calls Parker, and tells him that she’s “late.” Parker argues that he used protection, but she says “not in the morning.”
The next time they speak, on Oct. 17, she records the call with the help of the police. According to Parker’s statement during the trial, in the call, Parker says that his accuser “sure didn’t seem drunk” that night. Celestin also speaks to her, and tells her “he had done nothing wrong to apologize for.”
Oct. 13, 1999: According to court documents, the accuser reports the alleged assault to the State College, Pennsylvania, police. Before doing so, she had received counseling from the University.
Oct. 18, 1999: The police conduct interviews with Parker and Celestin. They both admit that they had sex with their accuser, but say it was consensual. According to Parker’s statement, the interrogating officer, Officer Weaver, allegedly starts “yelling” at him, and tells him “you wrestlers rape this town.”
Oct. 21, 1999: Both Parker and Celestin are arrested and charged with sexual assault, indecent assault, involuntary deviate sexual intercourse and rape. Parker posts bail — $25,000 — but is forbidden from contacting his accuser. A week later, she reports the alleged rape to the university.
After pressing charges, she alleges that the two men start harassing her on campus, to the point of stalking. Later, university officials tell Parker and Celestin that if that if they contact her, they could be expelled. According to an article in Penn State’s newspaper, the Daily Collegian, they both were suspended from the wrestling team.
Nov. 17, 1999: Doe attempts to commit suicide after complaining of supposed further verbal harassment from Parker and his friends. She makes a second attempt six days later.
January 2000: Doe leaves the university, but remains in State College.
Oct. 5, 2001: Parker is acquitted of all charges, while Celestin is found guilty. Their trial lasts for three days.
Nov. 20, 2001: Celestin is sentenced to six to 12 months in a county prison, despite the fact that the mandatory sentence for the crime is three to six years. His sentence is also delayed so that he’ll be able to graduate from Penn State.
Dec. 7, 2001: Celestin is expelled from Penn State for two years. There is a possibility that he’ll be able to graduate after his expulsion.
Dec. 5, 2002: According to the Daily Collegian, Penn State settles its own suit with the alleged victim for $17,500, without admitting to fault. The school does, however, agree to change its policies regarding harassment, which the accuser’s lawyer says is her true intent.
May 2, 2003: Celestin appeals his sentence, and is denied. In fact, the Pennsylvania Superior Court orders the judge to hand down a longer sentence after deeming the first sentence “unreasonable.” The court’s decision read: “On remand, we remind the trial court that its sentence must reflect not just the rehabilitative needs of Mr. Celestin, but also the gravity of the offense and protection of the public.”
2003: Parker graduates from the University of Oklahoma, where he transferred to after Celestin’s sentencing.
March 30, 2004: Celestin is resentenced. This time, it’s for two to four years in prison.
2004: Parker lands his first role, a spot on the television series Cold Case.
October 2005: Celestin appeals his ruling again, with a new lawyer arguing that his first attorney, Joseph Devecka, did not effectively defend him during the 2001 trial. A judge orders a second trial for the case, but it’s ultimately thrown out when the accuser decides not to testify. His conviction is overturned and he is exonerated. That same year, Parker appears in his first film, Cruel World.
Dec. 23, 2007: It’s a big year for Parker’s acting career: He has roles in Pride alongside Terrence Howard and The Great Debaters with Denzel Washington. While doing press for the latter film, the rape charges come to light in an interview.
April 15, 2012: While at a rehab facility, Doe commits suicide after overdosing on sleeping pills. Her brother later tells Variety that while there’s no direct link between her suicide and the alleged rape, it did have a negative affect on her. “If I were to look back at her very short life and point to one moment where I think she changed as a person, it was obviously that point,” the brother, who identifies himself as Johnny, said. “The trial was pretty tough for her,”
“She became detached from reality,” Johnny explains of her suicide. “The progression was very quick and she took her life.”
2014: Development begins for Birth of a Nation. In the months following, actors like Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union join the cast.
May 2015: Birth of a Nation is filmed over the course of 27 days in Savannah, Georgia.
January 2016: Birth of a Nation premieres at the Sundance Film Festival and wins both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize. Shortly after, Fox Searchlight purchases the rights to the movie for $17.5 million, a record-breaking deal for the festival.
Aug, 16, 2016: Parker publishes a statement about the woman’s death on Facebook, and says he’s only just learned of it:
“I myself just learned that the young woman ended her own life several years ago and I am filled with profound sorrow. I can’t tell you how hard it is to hear this news. I can’t help but think of all the implications this has for her family. I cannot nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial. While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”
That same day, the woman’s family releases a statement to The New York Times in response to Parker’s statement:
“We appreciate that after all this time, these men are being held accountable for their actions. However, we are dubious of the underlying motivations that bring this to present light after 17 years, and we will not take part in stoking its coals. While we cannot protect the victim from this media storm, we can do our best to protect her son. For that reason, we ask for privacy for our family and do not wish to comment further.”
Meanwhile, the woman’s sister, Sharon Loeffler, has another perspective on the issue. “I know what she would’ve said, and that would be, ‘I fought long and hard, it overcame me. All I can ask is any other victims to come forward, and not let this kind of tolerance to go on anymore,'” she says in a statement to the Times. “These guys sucked the soul and life out of her.”
Aug. 25, 2016: In an open letter published on The Root, four classmates from Parker’s Penn State days defend him and Celestin. “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,” their statement reads. “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.”
August 2016: A backlash starts to swirl: Around Los Angeles, mock Birth of a Nation posters are put up with Parker’s face above the word “Rapist?” A week later, the American Film Institute cancels a screening of the movie as well as a Q&A with Parker. However, Fox Searchlight continues to support Parker and the film.
Sept. 2, 2016: Gabrielle Union, a star of Birth of a Nation, speaks out about the allegations in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times. In it, she talks about grappling with learning about Parker’s past in light of her own: She was raped at gunpoint in 1992. She writes:
“Since Nate Parker’s story was revealed to me, I have found myself in a state of stomach-churning confusion. I took this role because I related to the experience. I also wanted to give a voice to my character, who remains silent throughout the film. In her silence, she represents countless black women who have been and continue to be violated. Women without a voice, without power. Women in general. But black women in particular. I knew I could walk out of our movie and speak to the audience about what it feels like to be a survivor.
“My compassion for victims of sexual violence is something that I cannot control. It spills out of me like an instinct rather than a choice. It pushes me to speak when I want to run away from the platform. When I am scared. Confused. Ashamed. I remember this part of myself and must reach out to anyone who will listen — other survivors, or even potential perpetrators.”
Oct. 2, 2016: Parker opens up about the case during an interview with Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes. In the interview, he says that he doesn’t feel guilty about what happened, though concedes that he did something morally wrong, viewing the events from the “lens” he has today. He calls the news of his accuser’s suicide “devastating.” Throughout the interview, he maintains his innocence.
“You know, at some point I have to say it,” Parker says. “I was falsely accused. I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated — I was proven innocent. I was vindicated. And I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. I feel terrible that her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is, no.”
The next morning, during an appearance on Good Morning America, he continues: “At some point, I’ve talked about it, I keep talking about it, I keep talking about it,” he says. “I’m not going to go through it. I was falsely accused. I was proven innocent. I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Celestin has not spoken publicly about the case.
Oct. 7, 2016: Birth of a Nation is scheduled for release in theaters.