"The Birth of a Nation" star Nate Parker said he wants to move past the sexual assault allegation from his college days that has overshadowed the buzz surrounding his film about a slave rebellion that he spent eight years creating.
"I was falsely accused," Parker, 36, said today on "Good Morning America." "I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that."
The actor was accused of raping a fellow classmate while he was a student at Penn State University in 1999. Parker was later acquitted, but his college roommate and wrestling teammate, Jean Celestin, who is also his collaborator on "Birth of a Nation," was found guilty before his verdict was overturned on appeal. Both men have maintained the sex was consensual and Celestin's case was never retried.
The accuser committed suicide in 2012 after many previous attempts. Her sister, Sharon Loeffler, recently wrote in Variety that it "tormented my sister to see [Parker] thrive while she was still struggling."
Parker said he "feels terribly" about the situation but wants to focus on "The Birth of a Nation," which he directed, starred in, wrote and produced. The film tells the true story of how slave Nat Turner led a rebellion in 1831, a 48-hour battle that would become the bloodiest slave revolt in U.S. history.
"I think the important thing, you know, is this isn’t about me," Parker said. "The story of Nat Turner as an American, as American people, the story about a man who was erased from history, at some point. I think that’s where our focus should be."
Parker described the process of making the movie as using his "art" to, "really deal with the things I see every day, with hope that it can create solution."
"We’ve become desensitized to the things that are happening and the question is to what do we owe? What is our responsibility?" he said. "I think patriotism is all about wanting to see America better, wanting to see those are oppressed do better and get treated better."
"Birth of a Nation," which also stars Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union, swept all top categories when it premiered at the Sundance Film Festival Awards in January, becoming only the fourth film to capture all the festival's highest honors. It also received a standing ovation when it premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival in September.
Parker said he hopes the story of Nat Turner, who was also a preacher, inspires moviegoers to find the "systemic things" that need attention in America and to look inside themselves for what they can do to fix them.
"There’s a lot of talk around the things, you know, that need to be different, but there’s not a lot of talk about how we can be specific in addressing these issues of systemic crisis in our country, whether it be crisis against people of color in this country or people in the LBGT community," he said.
"There’s just so many people that day to day are facing the type of things that are so disheartening and that are corrupted to America in the same way that there are systemic crises back then in the 19th century that went unchecked because of cognitive dissonance."
"The Birth of a Nation" opens nationwide this Friday.