For two years, the film Academy has been hit with fiery criticism over its all-white Oscar acting nominees. So when Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation premiered to cheers at the Sundance Film Festival in January and sold for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, it looked like a savior Academy voters could embrace, in part to rectify past wrongs.
Birth of a Nation seemingly had everything going for it. The film could claim historical importance — it tells the story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. It had the imprimatur of the Sundance Institute, where it had been developed. Parker himself had the kind of personal story that often resonates with Oscar voters, since he’d temporarily set aside a promising acting career to pursue his passion project, which marks his directorial debut. And, in the months since its debut, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, Birth, rather than just revisiting the past, looked as if it could become an important part of the national conversation about how black men are treated in America.
But now the film is seen as tainted after details resurfaced from a 2001 rape trial in which Parker, now 36, was acquitted but accused of reprehensible acts (his friend Jean Celestin, who shares a story credit on Birth, was found guilty, but the conviction was overturned), and it was revealed Aug. 16 that Parker’s alleged victim killed herself in 2012. “Personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in it,” says Marcia Nasatir, an Academy member in the executives branch. “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.”
Birth, with Parker (right) and co-star Armie Hammer, still is set for a Toronto screening.
The question is whether other Academy members will respond similarly. Among those surveyed, few had previously known of Parker and most are first learning about him via the media coverage of the resurfaced rape claims. Most have not yet seen the film, which has screened only at select festivals and private tastemaker events since Sundance.
Fox Searchlight maintains it is charging ahead with an Oct. 7 wide release plan and a rollout that will include a high-profile screening at the Toronto Film Festival and a “road show” with Parker visiting college campuses. A planned screening and Q&A with Parker on Friday at the American Film Institute was canceled late Tuesday, and others could follow.
The backlash means rival campaigns for films dealing with black subject matter likely will press their cases even harder. And unlike past seasons, this year there are a half-dozen films that, at least on paper, deserve serious consideration.
Most prominent among them are Loving (Nov. 4), writer-director Jeff Nichols’ look at the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage; Denzel Washington’s Fences (Dec. 25), his adaptation of August Wilson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh; and Theodore Melfi’s Hidden Figures (Jan. 13, following an Oscar-qualifying run), starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer as real-life math whizzes who worked for NASA during the 1960s. Other contenders: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o stars as the mother of a young Ugandan chess phenom in Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe (Sept. 23); Barry Jenkins’ Moonlight (Oct. 21), about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality; Southside With You (Aug. 26), in which Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers play Michelle and Barack Obama on their first date; and Will Smith, who plays a man trying to rebuild his life in December’s Collateral Beauty.
Spike Lee hosted a Birth screening with Parker in Martha’s Vineyard in early August.
In an effort to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite flap, Academy PR consultants and the awards media likely will shine a spotlight on such movies, but the campaigns also risk pitting “black” films against one another. Even before Parker’s rape case re-emerged, strategists quietly were laying the groundwork to position their movies as more palatable alternatives to the violent, R-rated Birth.
Despite the welcome crop of black movies that will jostle for attention, there’s a question whether each will be judged on its own merits. The risk is that because of all the focus on race, the films will be forced to contend with an unspoken quota system, with each competing to fill a limited number of slots. “I’m already prepared for the backlash of any film that centers on marginalized communities being thought of as an affirmative action or a quota pic,” says April Reign, the activist who coined #OscarsSoWhite.
In an ideal world, each of these films would be judged separately from one another and their backstories. Mitchell Block, an Oscar voter in the documentary branch, who serves on an Academy committee with Parker, says, “I understand it’s an extraordinary movie and I’m looking forward to seeing it. The court found Parker not guilty, and they set aside the Celestin conviction, but that’s almost beside the point. I think you have to separate the work from the person. Hollywood continues to embrace the work of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski.”
Parker won the grand jury and audience awards at Sundance in January and was honored Aug. 11 by the Sundance Institute.
But that’s not always the way the awards game is played. Voters also pass judgment on filmmakers, whose personal stories become part of the awards calculus as voters decide whom to reward and whom to spurn. And because there will be no separating Parker from Birth of a Nation, no matter what strategy Searchlight ultimately employs, the film now has to be considered very problematic. Says Nasatir: “This is going to set off a thing in this town the likes of which we’ve never seen.”
Will You Give Birth a Chance?
Two longtime Oscar voters offer opposing views on a tainted contender
“He wasn’t found guilty, and even if he was, we’re not voting for the man — we’re voting for his film. I’ve never met a Hollywood star who hasn’t had some sensational thing said about him — and many of them won Academy Awards. In Hollywood, people love to see other people fail, but we should judge films on their merits. From what I hear, the picture’s really good. I think it’s a shame people have to bring things like this up to try to hurt it.” — Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees), actors branch
“I’ve been following the case. I read the transcripts and the comments of the girl who died. When I was having my hair done last week, even my hairdresser was livid. Other people haven’t heard about it yet, but it’s going to unfold in a very big way. They need a Ray Donovan guy in there to fix this because there’s so much money invested in this movie. I will probably see it because I try to see everything. But I have to admit, I’m going to go in with a very biased attitude toward this guy because I think what he and the co-writer did to this girl was terrible — especially how they harassed her after she reported their behavior. They got off, but they are not innocent. Parker stands behind his wife and his five daughters, but that doesn’t wash with me. The only thing that would make this better for me would be for him to say, ‘I’m gonna serve my six months in jail.’ Otherwise, it will be very hard for me to vote for this movie. What is the life of a woman worth?” — Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest), actors branch
A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.