As shocking as hearing about the 1999 sexual assault allegations against Nate Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin was to us, imagine being the actress in their film. Then, take a couple of terrible mindsteps more, and think about that actress as a person who was once raped at gunpoint, and who also made a decision to ***The Birth of a Nation SPOILER*** take part in that film, which depicts her being raped, in order to raise awareness about sexual assault. Honestly, I can’t even wrap my brain around the idea of all that, or put myself in Gabrielle Union’s incredibly unsettling position. But, on this day that convicted rapist Brock Turner was released from jail after serving only three months, and yet another athlete — Derrick Rose — is in the midst of another disturbing rape case involving another victim who may have been unconscious or unable to consent, what’s important right now is that public (and private) conversations are happening. They need to keep happening until everyone understands what is and isn’t consent, until victim-blaming and -shaming stops and every person who is sexually assaulted is unafraid to report an assault, until schools start taking appropriate actions to protect victims and to hold the attackers — regardless of their athletic standings — responsible, and until the laws change and require mandatory, uncircumventable sentences. Gabrielle Union knows these conversations need to continue and, for that reason, has eloquently penned a heartbreaking essay for the Los Angeles Times. She opens with a succinct description of her circumstances:
Twenty-four years ago I was raped at gunpoint in the cold, dark backroom of the Payless shoe store where I was then working. Two years ago I signed on to a brilliant script called The Birth of a Nation, to play a woman who was raped. One month ago I was sent a story about Nate Parker, the very talented writer, director and star of this film.
Just let that sink in a minute. Most of us internally twitched when we discovered Parker and Celestin’s shared history, and that their acclaimed Sundance-premiered movie contained a rape scene; Union actually submitted herself to that depiction, and then later received the same information about her director that we did. Did you just subconsciously stop breathing for a second? I did. She continues:
Rape is a wound that throbs long after it heals. And for some of us the throbbing gets too loud. Post traumatic stress syndrome is very real and chips away at the soul and sanity of so many of us who have survived sexual violence. 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.
Despite the obvious upset and pain such a situation must have caused, Gabrielle Union has done what so many rape survivors are compelled to do: she pushed past her internal feelings and found a way to turn something terrible into as positive an outcome as she could. She took back her power. Union writes plainly that just as none of us can ever know for certain what happened; she cannot know or say, but neither does Union shy away from the ugliness:
As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date’s consent? It’s very possible he thought he did. 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.
Make no mistake: Union has been put in an impossibly complicated, personal and professional situation. That she has chosen to address it head-on in a public forum is beyond brave and, if I could, I would give her the biggest hug. As every person who has experienced sexual assault knows, that nagging fear and timidity of stepping forward, talking about what happened in any capacity, always lingers. There are tiny, lingering bits of shame that never, ever go away and the anxiety of exposure — even the very fact that you were ever raped — can be terrifying to speak aloud or write about. There are flashes that must forever be pushed back into the darkness. In writing this op-ed, Gabrielle Union dug up her own past because she knows how much this conversation matters. With each passing day and its accompanying headlines, none of us can say we are unaware; we all share the responsibility to keep this particular discussion going. Please take the time to read Union’s full piece, and share it.