On Aug. 11, director Nate Parker accepted the Vanguard Award at the Sundance Institute’s Night Before Next benefit, joining previous winners and up-and-coming filmmakers like Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Damien Chazelle (Whiplash), among others. The award was the latest honor for Parker’s directorial debut and passion project, The Birth of a Nation, as the film had already won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, and been purchased for a near-record amount, making it practically a guarantee that we’d hear the title again when the Academy Award nominations are announced. Parker even announced his plans to start his own film school, and that was just as his star power was beginning to build.
Then things took an ugly turn. Instead of his cinematic achievement, Parker found himself in headlines for rape accusations against him and his Birth co-writer Jean Celestin from their time as students at Penn State. In 1999, an 18-year-old woman accused Parker and Celestin of sexually assaulting her while she was unconscious; however, Parker was acquitted. Celestin was found guilty and sentenced to at least six months in prison, but he appealed and was granted a new trial, and because the victim refused to testify again, his conviction was set aside. Thus, when Parker was asked about the case during a press tour for his film, he explained that he had moved on with his life.
That didn’t stop the digging from media outlets, and because of the negative attention – specifically the revelation that the accuser died from an overdose in 2012, and her brother telling the story of her struggle with “major depressive disorder” – Fox Searchlight executives reportedly had to reconsider a massive release campaign for the film, which hits theaters on Oct. 7. Now, according to The Hollywood Reporter, even Academy members are having difficulty viewing Parker’s work beyond the details of his past.
“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.”
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. (Via THR)
Earlier this week, the Rev. Al Sharpton came to Parker’s defense over the idea that his awards hopes will be hurt, despite the fact that he was acquitted. After his boycott of this year’s Academy Awards, in conjunction with the #OscarsSoWhite movement, Sharpton is once again taking on the Academy, as well as the right-wing media, because of this alleged effort to discredit Parker.
“Now, all of a sudden, they rediscover what they already knew,” said Sharpton, who has been a fierce critic of the Academy, even leading a boycott of the Oscars last February for its lack of diversity in Hollywood. “The way you kill the message is you try to smear the messenger.”
In an interview with The Root, Sharpton said that Parker — whom he spoke with by phone last week — admitted that he had made some mistakes in the aftermath of the court proceedings, but he has maintained that the sexual relationship with the woman was consensual.
“Nobody is justifying wrong, but if you go to court, charge somebody with the crime and the courts in Pennsylvania in 1999 find you not guilty, you can’t have it both ways,” Sharpton said, adding that he understands the many concerns that black women have raised over the past few days about the allegations. “All I want to know is, what is the standard? Is the standard now that you can take an almost two-decade acquittal and beat him down and deny him the Oscars, but it’s all right for others who’ve done crazy stuff to be Oscar material? I just want to know, what is the standard?” (Via The Root)
Sharpton also promises to “monitor the theater openings of the film across the country” and refuses to “be quiet” in the faces of the people who “won’t tell our story.” In an actual sign of possible coming struggles for Birth, the American Film Institute has announced that Friday’s scheduled screening has been postponed indefinitely.
AFI dean Jan Schuette announced the cancellation in a note to the film school’s fellows tonight. “I have been the recipient of many different passionate points of view about the screening, and I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together — messenger and message, gender, race and more — before we see the film,” he wrote. “Next week, we will be scheduling a special moderated discussion so we may explore these issues together as artists and audience.”
He also noted that “Fox has agreed to host a screening of the film for us later in the year.” (Via Deadline)
The upcoming Toronto International Film Festival still has several screenings of Parker’s film scheduled, but Parker will not appear for a press conference.