In January, at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation emerged as an early awards season contender, and had big time Oscar hopes. Now, as Parker's rape accusation from 17-years ago resurfaces, both he and the movie are facing a rough road ahead. With the movie preparing to roll out in theaters on October 7, screenings are being canceled, and some critics are refusing to see the movie.
The controversy all stems from an incident that occurred in 1999 when Nate Parker was accused of raping a female student with his Penn State roommate Jean McGianni Celestin. Parker was acquitted of the charges, and though Celestin, who co-wrote Birth of a Nation with Parker, was convicted, the conviction was overturned on appeal. However, the incident was brought back into the public eye recently when Variety reported that his accuser committed suicide in 2012.
As a result of the controversy surrounding the issue, the American Film Institute (AFI) recently canceled a screening and a Q&A that was scheduled for the movie, and a press conference to promote the film at the Toronto international film festival was also canceled. There were several other screenings of Birth of a Nation scheduled during the Toronto festival, and Parker was scheduled to appear at a press conference, but a spokesperson for the event who spoke to Deadline says that is definitely not going to happen now. However, Michael Hooper of Fox Searchlight has said that Parker will appear for some Q&A's following screenings of the movie during the festival.
The Birth of a Nation, which Parker directed, wrote and starred in, took home top honors at Sundance this year and at the moment sits at a very impressive 96 percent approval rating on Rotten Tomatoes. The movie centers around the true story of Nat Turner, a literate slave who orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading he and his people to freedom. No matter who good or important the movie may be, its Oscar chances are in serious jeopardy now, as there is a growing amount of critics and Academy Voters who are planning on skipping the movie. Producer Marcia Nasatir is one of those people. Speaking with The Hollywood Reporter recently, here is what she had to say about it.
"Do I want to see a movie from someone who has committed an assault against a woman and who I do not think recognizes his guilt? Right now, based on what I've read, I would not go to the movie."
The Academy does not require that voters see any specific movies, so those who feel strongly about the rape controversy, like Nasatir, don't have to see the movie. That will no doubt have some impact on The Birth of a Nation during its Oscar campaign. Not only that but movie critics are certainly not required to see the movie, so that could have some effect moving forward as well. Shortly after it came to light that the woman who made the allegations had killer herself, Parker took to his personal Facebook page to address it head on. Here is some of what he had to say.
"I cannot- nor do I want to ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial. While I maintain my innocence that the encounter was unambiguously consensual, there are things more important than the law. There is morality; no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation. As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom. I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in. I cannot change what has happened. I cannot bring this young woman who was someone else's daughter, someone's sister and someone's mother back to life...I have changed so much since nineteen. I've grown and matured in so many ways and still have more learning and growth to do. I have tried to conduct myself in a way that honors my entire community - and will continue to do this to the best of my ability. All of this said, I also know there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal. I have never run from this period in my life and I never ever will. Please don't take this as an attempt to solve this with a statement. I urge you only to take accept this letter as my response to the moment."
It is no doubt a very complicated situation. Yes, Parker was acquitted of the charges brought against him, but it is still a very terrible thing to have happened at all and it is not something that can be ignored or brushed off. However, he was not found guilty of any crime, and this is not something that happened any time recently. So, it is understandable from both sides of the aisle. What remains to be seen is if it will ultimately hurt The Birth of a Nation and to what degree, a movie that many have said is a very important movie and a very good one at that. Outside of the critical community and Academy voting members, the general public may be less willing to pay to see the movie, given the controversy, which could have a negative effect on the box office as well. We will be sure to keep you updated as more information becomes available.