‘Birth of a Nation’ Still Scheduled For October Release Despite Controversy
Fox Searchlight’s awards season plans for The Birth of a Nation have grown increasingly complicated in recent weeks, as reports surfaced revealing that the director and star of the historical drama has a troubled history of his own. Although details of Nate Parker’s alleged involvement and subsequent acquittal in a 1999 sexual assault was available to the public (it’s on his Wikipedia page) before the studio acquired the rights to distribute the Sundance hit, it was only recently that the case became a point of controversy. Despite all of this, Fox Searchlight’s plans to release the film in October have not changed.
Deadline initially reported on the 1999 rape trial, in which Parker and then-roommate Jean Celestin (who shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation) were accused of sexually assaulting an unnamed woman at Penn State. (Parker was acquitted, while Celestin’s initial six-month jail sentence was overturned on appeal.) According to the in-depth report, Fox Searchlight was eager to get ahead of any potential awards season controversy by addressing Parker’s past head-on.
The actor and filmmaker spoke with Deadline about the case, expressing a sense of self-awareness and remorse that appeared genuine, but further review of the details (including the transcript of an unnerving phone call between the defendant and Parker) makes Parker’s story and his self-proclaimed commitment to advocacy and women’s rights seem a little insincere. As is the case with Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, it’s difficult to separate the art from the artist, but unlike those filmmakers, Parker doesn’t have an established filmography to justify that distinction.
The awards season chances of a first-time filmmaker are meaningless in comparison to the experiences of Parker’s alleged victim, who, as Variety recently reported, took her own life in 2012. Her brother Johnny spoke with the trade about his sister’s tragic death, and his honest, thoughtful assessment of the controversy surrounding the film is an incredibly succinct summation of a complex issue:
His character should be under a microscope because of this incident. If you removed these two people, the project is commendable. But there’s a moral and ethical stance you would expect from someone with regard to this movie.
“This movie” being one about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The film also features a highly-publicized rape scene, which has become an even bigger sticking point as details of Parker’s past have emerged.
Johnny went on to tell Variety that it’s not up to him for Fox Searchlight to release the movie as planned:
I think that’s up to the people. I don’t think a rapist should be celebrated. It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.
Parker himself addressed the incident in a brief statement to Variety:
Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.
Fox Searchlight purchased the distribution rights to The Birth of a Nation following its acclaimed debut at Sundance, where the ecstatic response sparked a bidding war over what would be a surefire Oscar contender. The studio acquired the film for a record-breaking $17.5 million — again, none of this feels particularly meaningful when measured against the experiences of the victim.
For now, Fox Searchlight still intends to release The Birth of a Nation on October 7 as planned, and released this statement to Entertainment Weekly in support of Parker and his film:
Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.