Yes Means Yes: A Conversation About Nate Parker and Affirmative Consent

April Reign, creator of #OscarsSoWhite, unpacks the question of boycotting artists who are accused of rape

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KWAME ROSE, TRNN: For the Real News Network here in Baltimore, Maryland, I’m Kwame Rose.

There’s been a lot of hype and controversy since the movie premier of Birth of a Nation at Sundance Film Festival, but even afterwards when Fox Searchlight bought the film for an unprecedented $17.5 million. Now the movie is back in the headlines before it’s released in October in theatres nationwide, but not for any good reason. A conversation about rape allegations from 17 years ago against the writer and co-writer of the film, Nate Parker, and his college roommate Jean Celestin have come up. Nate Parker’s admitted that he did things wrong, and people are taking to Twitter to react.

I’m joined now by the founder and the starter of the hashtag #OscarsSoWhite, April Reign. She’s a supermom, she’s a blogger, she’s a journalist. And like I said, she created the popular hashtag #OscarsSoWhite. April, thank you for joining us here at the Real News.

APRIL REIGN: Thank you for having me.

ROSE: April, let’s–just to brief our viewers on what this incident actually is, Nate Parker, a famous actor. When he was a 19-year-old wrestler on a scholarship at Penn State he was accused by an 18-year-old freshman. She said she was allegedly raped. At the trial the accuser recalled being heavily intoxicated when she went to sleep at Parker and Celestin’s apartment. Celestin, the co-writer of Birth of a Nation. The victim said she was mostly unconscious, only waking up briefly a few times during the middle of sex with both Parker and Celestin.

Now, Parker was found not guilty, but Celestin was found guilty. But eventually that guilty verdict was thrown out as prosecutors decided not to re-try the case. April, why is rape coming back up, and why is this issue so recurring in Hollywood and on college campuses?

REIGN: Well, I think part of the issue here is that people are not following with respect to the issue of consent. And the consent has to be revokable consent. And so once you lose the ability to revoke your consent, you’re no longer consenting to a sexual act. And we see this happen all too often. Not just in Hollywood, but as you say, on college campuses around the country, because we are not teaching our kids, the younger generation, what consent means. That you have to state it affirmatively, and that you need to hear it affirmatively before engaging in sexual contact.

ROSE: April, Nate Parker in his original statement, in this interview with Variety magazine, he said, I understand consent now, as a 36-year-old father and husband, than I did 17 years ago. I want to give you some stats on college campus and rapes. This is from OneInFour.com, a website dedicated to ending rape on college campuses.

First stat: one in four college women report surviving rape or attempted rape at some point in their lifetimes. 72-81 percent of the cases in which a male rapes a female college student, the female is intoxicated. The highest sexual assault risk situation for college women is after they become voluntarily intoxicated. April, what is it about young men, right, on college campuses, that they don’t understand that an intoxicated yes is essentially a no?

REIGN: I’m not sure that that’s true. And it’s an interesting conversation to have. So if I willingly have a few drinks, right, because we’re hanging out at a bar, and then I decide to take you home, and we have sex, is it consensual? Or do I lose the ability to consent because I am impaired by alcohol? I don’t know what the answer is there.

But what I do know is that if the, if your potential partner is unconscious, or if you have not received an affirmative consent from her or him to engage in sexual conduct, that you should not, regardless of whether they are intoxicated or sober.

ROSE: April, the victim, whose family has said that she wanted to remain anonymous–and it should be said that in 2012 she subsequently did take her own life by swallowing close to 200 sleeping pills, which she subsequently died from. But she did admit that she did have consensual sexual relations with Nate Parker days before this incident, in which she reported being raped.

Many will say that this is just Hollywood out to get another black man on the rise for bringing about the story of a great slave rebellion that white Hollywood didn’t want to bring out. Any validation to those claims?

REIGN: Absolutely not. First of all, it doesn’t matter whether they had sex before. Although the court found otherwise, it should not matter whether they had sex an hour before, a week before, or a month before. Each individual sexual act must be consented to. So the fact that I had sex with you a week ago doesn’t mean that I automatically consent to have sex with you today.

With respect to the other point, you know, Nate Parker was not about to buy NBC. Sorry, conspiracy theorists. But that’s not what this is, right. And if it was really Hollywood out to get Nate Parker and the Birth of a Nation movie, which I still think is going to be an important film, they would have done so long before Nate signed that record-breaking $17.5 million contract at the Sundance Film Festival. Why would they wait until two months before the movie’s release to have these charges brought up again?

And let’s be clear, it’s not as if the court files were closed. This information has always been there. It’s just coming to light once again.

ROSE: And you touched on a couple of good points. The first point I want to touch on is the fact that this is not an issue that is new to Nate Parker. When The Great Debaters came out in 2007, he faced some criticism because he was open and honest about this. He said, I went through something before, and he admitted that he learned from this, learned from what he deemed as a mistake. So he’s always been open. This has been on his Wikipedia page for years.

But here’s what he said yesterday when he found out that the victim had subsequently taken her life in 2012. He said, I write to you all devastated. Later on he goes to say, I understand how much confusion and pain this incident has had on so many, most importantly the young woman who was involved. He later says, I cannot nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during the following of our trial. While I maintain my innocence, that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law.

April, what is it so–what is it that Nate Parker said that’s wrong, and that many men just don’t simply get? That you cannot sympathize with the abuser, you have to sympathize with the victim.

REIGN: Right. Well, from everything that I have seen, and that’s reading testimony and interviews and court documents and so on, this is the first time that we have seen, that I have seen Nate Parker speak about the pain and the trauma that this woman, the victim, went through. And this is only because this issue is white-hot right now, and he is attempting to get in front of it, is the way it appears to me.

If he had this issue with The Great Debaters, nearly ten years ago, where has his remorse been?

ROSE: Do you think, do you think it’s because it’s a hot issue? Or do you think it’s because he’s learning? The more people talk about it, he’s learning from it.

REIGN: Okay, but why didn’t he learn ten years ago when we were discussing this same issue with The Great Debaters? Because he was a grown man when this happened, because he was 19, right, and so–and then we cut to almost ten years later in 2006 or so for The Great Debaters. What had he learned? And then from The Great Debaters till now, what had he learned? Where is his remorse?

So I don’t expect him, because of legal reasons, you know, and I used to practice law so I get it, I don’t expect him to come out and say, you know, I was wrong, I committed this heinous act. But what I do expect him to say, what I would like to see him say, is I was in a position that I should not have been in. He even said on the telephone conversation that this should not have happened.

And so now, why isn’t he speaking out more about issues of consent? Who has a better platform than him? In fact, they are talking about taking Birth of a Nation, the big rollout before all of this flew out again, was supposed to happen in colleges and churches. Right, college campuses. Who has a better platform than him to talk to other students, college students, about affirmative and continuous consent?

ROSE: Before we get to the issue about whether or not people should boycott Birth of a Nation, I want to ask–because there are hundreds if not thousands of other young men that have been through similar situations as Nate Parker has. Should those individuals, should those men, be comfortable enough to–not comfortable, but should they have the courage enough to speak up and say that I made a mistake, I was wrong in this instance, and I learned from it? Or should they just remain silent about it?

REIGN: Why should they remain silent? Why should their negative actions–they need to be accountable for their actions. And not just say it. You know, you have to walk the walk, you have to talk the talk. So then what? Once you’ve acknowledged that you’ve done something wrong, what are you going to do? How are you going to make it better? Who are you mentoring? What young brother are you talking to to make sure that it doesn’t happen to him the way you perpetrated it on someone else?

ROSE: Now, April, to get–I think you’re absolutely right. We should be having these conversations, right. We should be teaching young men not to rape more than we should be teaching young women not to drink. But the sense–.

REIGN: We shouldn’t be–we shouldn’t be teaching young women not to drink at all.

ROSE: No, no, no. Yeah, I’m saying–that’s what I’m specifically saying. I’m saying we should be teaching men not to rape, right. We should be teaching men to know the difference between an intoxicated–being a woman intoxicated versus a woman giving consent. Willing consent. But this issue happened. Nate Parker has admitted he was wrong throughout time. As it has gotten hotter he has shown more remorse towards the victim. It’s shifted from–.

REIGN: Has he? Before yesterday, when had he?

ROSE: Well, that’s what I’m–this time with this last statement. It’s more remorse than what he’s shown in the past. So my question now is, should we boycott Birth of a Nation? Because it is an important story to tell. So should we boycott Birth of a Nation? Do we still watch it, do we still support the film? What do we do?

REIGN: It’s a really interesting question. And I am still grappling with whether I’m going to go see it. Has Nate Parker–and Jean, his roommate, who’s the co-writer of Birth of a Nation, have they earned our respect and our money? I’m not sure what the answer is.

On the flip side, one of my favorite phrases on Twitter is “All your faves are problematic.” And so we listen to the music of people who have been accused of underage sex, and pedophilia, and domestic violence. You know, when do we turn their records off and delete their music from our devices, and when do we take a stand?

So I think everybody has to make that decision for themselves, but you know, just make sure you’re being consistent, right? If you’re bopping along to–I won’t name any particular names, but you know who I mean. If you’re bopping along to an old school jam, or an R&B king, or a pop star, but you–and you know what he did, or she did, but you aren’t going to go see Birth of a Nation, just examine within yourself what distinction you’re making there.

ROSE: Well, April, thank you for joining us. This is a very important conversation to have, and one that we at the Real News hope to continue to have, these type of dialogs, so that our viewers can learn just as much as we have learned as individuals. Rape is an important action that needs to be taken a stand–that a stand needs to be taken against, whether it’s from a famous celebrity such as Nate Parker or a regular individual. Rape is rape, and should be called that, and the abusers should be called out for that.

April, thank you for taking the time today to join this discussion.

REIGN: My pleasure, thank you for having me.

ROSE: And for our viewers here at the Real News, we’ll be continuing discussions as this, such as the sexual abuse cases and the Department of Justice report that was released last week against Baltimore City Police, and other instances when women’s rights have been abused. Thank you for joining the Real News, and we’ll see you next time.

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