For the first half of 2016, a powerful narrative was taking shape around the forthcoming release of “The Birth of a Nation,” which is slated for highly anticipated screenings this week at the Toronto International Film Festival.
It was not just the narrative told by the period drama, which is based on the true story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising. It was the narrative about the film itself:
A well-liked young actor, Nate Parker, had realized a long-standing dream by making his writing-directing debut – one that, in addition to drawing raves at Sundance in January, was being cheered as a much-needed corrective to the chronic underrepresentation of black stories and artists that inspired the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
In short, it was a story of pluck, perseverance and social conscience – the kind of backstory that the movie marketers who gather at these kinds of festivals dream of. And surely part of the reason that Fox Searchlight Pictures decided to pay a record-breaking $17.5 million for the film after its Sundance premiere.
But now the story has changed, in ways that could threaten the film’s future, as Parker has sought to answer questions surrounding a sexual assault he and Jean McGianni Celestin – his “Birth of a Nation” co-writer – were accused of perpetrating while both were sophomores at Penn State in 1999.
It’s a controversy that has tempered Toronto’s usual upbeat anticipation about the fall’s crop of new movies as the festival opens Thursday. And it has reopened the perpetual debate about whether, and how, to separate the art from the artist.
By now, filmgoers are accustomed to making those mental accommodations for filmmakers whose private lives become news, whether they’re deciding to see a new movie by Mel Gibson, Roman Polanski or Woody Allen. (In fact, Gibson just premiered his new “Hacksaw Ridge” at the Venice Film Festival to an enthusiastic response.)
But the calculus could be harder for Parker. Not only does he star in “The Birth of a Nation” as Nat Turner – appearing in nearly every frame for most of the movie – but its plot, with themes of sexual violence and exploitation, is poised to chime uneasily with the accusations against him.
The charges against Parker have always been part of the public record of his life, if little explored until now: A fellow student maintained that the two men had sex with her despite the fact that she was too inebriated to give consent. Parker was found not guilty; Celestin was convicted but won the right to a new trial on appeal, and prosecutors decided not to retry him.
But Parker’s attempts to address this matter in 2016 have often been nearly as troubling as the original allegations. His initial interviews with the Hollywood trade press, given so that he could get ahead of the story before awards season got underway, veered from tone-deaf to startlingly insensitive – especially after it came to light that the young woman in question took her own life in 2012.
Earlier, she had sued the school for not protecting her from what she said was a harassment campaign that Parker and Celestin led against her.
“I was thinking about myself,” Parker admitted to Ebony reporter Britni Danielle last week regarding those earlier interviews. “And what I realized is that I never took a moment to think about the woman.”
When “The Birth of a Nation” screens at Toronto on Friday and over the weekend, hundreds of journalists, industry insiders and garden-variety filmgoers will finally have a chance to see the actual movie – while grappling, to varying degrees, with the past actions and current pronouncements of its maker.
With Fox Searchlight’s strongest marketing hooks – a prolonged Oscar campaign and Parker’s personal appearances on behalf of the film – now effectively scuttled, it remains to be seen whether the misgivings that have built up around the filmmaker can be banished, or at least managed, enough for the film to have a viable life when it opens in theaters on October 7.
Avalon Theatre programming director Andy Mencher has held “intense and far-ranging discussions” with his staff and other exhibitors and has decided for now that he will screen “The Birth of a Nation” at the Washington, D.C., cinema. Mencher expressed doubt that the Toronto screenings will sway public or industry opinion one way or another, “unless there’s a lot of organized negativism” in the form of protests or contentious Q-and-A sessions.
Mark O’Meara, owner of the Cinema Arts Theatre in Fairfax, Virginia, is more eager than ever to play the film, which he booked after seeing it this summer. “I feel bad for (Nate Parker), I feel worse for the woman, but you have to look at the body of work,” he said, adding that the film, set in Virginia, will hold particular interest for local viewers.
Similarly, Susan Koch, executive director of the Middleburg (Virginia) Film Festival, is still hoping that she’ll be able to show the film, even a few weeks after it opens. “We thought it would be a good film to have a dialogue around,” she explained. “We would position it as a Sunday afternoon film with dialogue – not a dialogue about (Parker), but about the story.”
How the film fares at Toronto should indicate whether viewers will be able to distinguish between the two. Just last Friday, one of the film’s co-stars, Gabrielle Union – herself a rape survivor – wrote in the Los Angeles Times that “as important and groundbreaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly.” She also hailed the film as “an opportunity to inform and educate.”
In the film, Parker portrays the vicious rape of Turner’s wife, Cherry, at the hands of a “slave-catcher,” as well as another white man’s sexual assault of an enslaved servant played by Union, as the chief incidents that incited Turner and his fellow rebels to take up arms against the plantation owners of Southampton County, Virginia.
Parker might have appropriated his title in a pointedly subversive nod to D.W. Griffith’s virulently racist 1915 movie of the same name but, much like its forebear, his “Birth of a Nation” will present viewers with a challenge above and beyond merely separating the art from the artist.
Instead, the audience will be asked to sit with the contradictions and overlapping agonies raised by a film that, because of its content and the personal story of its creator, inflames the most tender touchpoints of contemporary American culture – from racism and sexism, to rape, entitlement, consent, sexual violence on campus, trauma, contested history and the possibility of personal and societal redemption.
Graphically violent and handsomely photographed, if at times crudely on-the-nose, “The Birth of a Nation” can’t help but invite reflections on Parker’s off-screen persona and behavior, whether the viewer believes that’s he’s being unjustly persecuted for a crime for which he was acquitted, or that he’s in a dubious moral position to hold others accountable for a country’s unresolved past when he’s had such trouble confronting his own.
Parker will participate in media interviews and a news conference over the weekend, at which point the controversy over his past actions will either begin to abate or will be stoked anew – a tipping point Fox Searchlight will no doubt be anxiously gauging as it forges ahead with its release plans.
Mencher, for one, won’t be as interested in monitoring reactions to “The Birth of a Nation” as much as seeing potential movies to play at the Avalon and his monthly Cinema Club – especially highly anticipated awards-season contenders such as “Manchester By the Sea,” “La La Land,” “Nocturnal Animals” and “American Pastoral,” as well as new works by Francois Ozon and Philippe Falardeau.
“Within the industry, because it’s already old news at this point, (the Nate Parker story) may not even be talked about that seriously,” he said. “People are there to do business and discover new films, as programmers or distributors. And that’s what people are going to focus on and talk about.”