Actress Gabrielle Union hopes the sexual assault controversy surrounding her The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker will educate others about the meaning of consent.
The Bring It On star has written an op-ed piece for the Los Angeles Times, in which she confessed she was in a "state of stomach-churning confusion" after she discovered her director and his film collaborator Jean Celestin had been accused of sexual assault by an 18-year-old classmate at Penn State University in Pennsylvania in 1999.
Nate maintained the sex was consensual and he was later acquitted in a 2001 trial, while Celestin was sentenced to serve six months behind bars but his conviction was subsequently overturned after an appeal.
In the piece, Gabrielle, who was raped in the backroom of a shoe store where she worked at the age of 19, admits, "As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly," and she hopes to use the case as an example to educate others about sexual violence.
"On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did," she writes. "Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said 'no', silence certainly does not equal 'yes'.
"Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst. That’s why education on this issue is so vital."
The 43-year-old explains she took the role of a unnamed, silent slave in the drama, about a preacher who orchestrates an uprising, because she relates to her character's experience with sexual violence and hoped it would be an opportunity to "inform and educate" viewers.
"I took this part in this film to talk about sexual violence," she writes. "I know these conversations are uncomfortable and difficult and painful. But they are necessary. Addressing misogyny, toxic masculinity, and rape culture is necessary. Addressing what should and should not be deemed consent is necessary.
"Think of all the victims who, like my character, are silent... It is for you that I am speaking. This is real. We are real. Sexual violence happens more often than anyone can imagine. And if the stories around this film do not prove and emphasize this, then I don’t know what does."
Nate has also addressed the rape controversy throughout the summer, admitting he was devastated to learn his accuser committed suicide in 2012.
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