When Fox Searchlight picked up Birth of a Nation in January for a record $17.5 million fee at Sundance, they knew all about the past of its director/producer/writer/star Nate Parker. However, since the media picked up on his historical rape allegations (and subsequent acquittal), the film has suffered a stream of public relations setbacks that have knocked it way off course on the road to the Oscars.
Knowing the impact of trying to brush this under the carpet, Parker has come out publicly to acknowledge what happened, though it has done little to block to tidal wave of negative feeling that is now threatening to bring their campaign to a halt.
In the last two days, the AFI have cancelled a screening of the movie and Searchlight have pulled the scheduled press conference prior to its Toronto showing.
On the AFI cancellation, Steven Zeitchik of the LA Times noted that this “might have set a precedent of sorts for other organizations, and new dominoes could soon fall”. Though he also draws attention to other potential factors in their decision including “the embattled Schuette currently facing calls from faculty to resign over his administration of the filmmaking school. He’s unlikely to want to provide further fodder for criticism to his opponents”.
This somewhat justifies the aversion to more controversy from the AFI, but just a day later this domino effect seems to be materialising as Toronto pulled Birth of a Nation from its nine major press conferences. Despite Searchlight’s efforts to continue as normal, James Rainey at Variety conceded “hat stance gets harder every day for the film’s distributor and auteur, as more voices condemn Parker and suggest they will boycott the film”. And herein lies to problem.
Regardless of whether Fox directly address this issue or continue with their pre-existing Parker-centric promotional strategy, the film now has stigma fueled by social media which may very well engulf the entire film.
There are arguments that considering Parker was found innocent this should not be a discussion point, and indeed a good film is a good film and theoretically should still perform as expected at the Oscars, but the harsh reality is this will stick and Searchlight will need a PR miracle to rescue the film’s awards hopes.
However, the ever admirable Academy President Cheryl Boone Isaacs was recently caught off guard by TMZ, and she stood by the notion of judging the film, not the filmmaker:
“The important thing is for people to see it, to enjoy the film and be impressed by the film. People need to see this movie”
But this unwavering endorsement of fairness hasn’t stopped Forbes pondering if Fox Searchlight should pull the movie, citing Sony’s The Interview back in 2014 when hackers threatened the studio not to release it. They didn’t and the film went on to make a sizable profit through digital release.
However, should a trial that happened almost twenty years ago and acquitted a filmmaker of something he (believe it or not) didn’t do, force a studio to pull the release of that person’s film. Should we even be having this discussion and giving this issue the exposure it needs to prompt the consideration of boycotting? Well, some Academy voters think so.
In an article in the Hollywood Reporter on August 24, they quoted Marcia Nasatir of the Executives Branch, who said “personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in 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 very fact that an Academy voter, one of the few people deemed eligible to tell us what the best film of the year is, publicly admits she will not see the film because of Nate Parker’s personal circumstance, is a concerning precedence to set. It also flies in the face of the entire point of the Oscars, the same organisation that awarded Roman Polanski the Best Director Oscar in 2003, and continue to endorse the films of Woody Allen. These guys have done what is reported but still continue to be positively acknowledged by voters.
Whether you agree with the above or not, you should at least have a consistent point of view on these things, and if Nate Parker’s past becomes a material factor in the film’s awards failure then I personally will put an end to my defense of the Academy in light of the #OscarsSoWhite scandal. Now is not the time to challenge trends, and even if Parker is snubbed, the other talented and well-deserving cast and crew who worked on Birth of a Nation deserve a fair opportunity.