“The Birth of a Nation” rocked the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, with critics calling the film about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia a searing, violent, thematically rich work. It won the festival’s biggest prize, was sold for a record amount, and had huge early Oscar buzz at a time when the Academy Awards were being criticized for nominating few or no black artists.
That was in January.
Now the awards season chances for “The Birth of a Nation,” as well as for writer-director-star Nate Parker, appear dimmed by the emergence of details of a 1999 rape accusation and subsequent acquittal that brings up a welter of hot-button issues, from racial comparison with such previous sex-assault cases as Roman Polanski and Woody Allen to debates among feminists and liberals about rape culture and actions in the past.
Despite Mr. Parker’s acquittal in 2001, the backlash has been fierce. The director first denied any wrongdoing, but public outcry intensified after it was revealed that his accuser committed suicide in 2012. Mr. Parker himself is now backing away from his first response, possibly in an effort to save his current film and his future career.
On Friday in an exclusive interview with Ebony magazine, Mr. Parker spoke with an air of contrition about the trial and the criticism he has faced for his forceful description of the incident as “unambiguously consensual.” He told the magazine that he acted as if he were the victim and failed to think about the woman’s perspective.
He said he read a New York Times article by Roxane Gay as part of a process of shedding a “hyper-male” culture.
“I’ve got to be able to look at it and say, ‘Well, you know, I have engaged in hyper-male culture,’” Mr. Parker said. “And I’m learning about it, and I’m learning how I can change and help young boys and young men change.”
This is far from the first time a filmmaker has been accused of sexual assault. Directors Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have made headlines after sexual assault accusations, with Mr. Polanski admitting guilt and fleeing the U.S. in the face of criminal charges. Despite the accusations, both have remained active Hollywood darlings, with Mr. Polanski winning an Oscar in 2003 and Mr. Allen doing so in 2012.
In 2001, Mr. Parker and his friend Jean Celestin, who shares a story credit on the film, were tried for rape against a fellow student at Penn State University. The two men insisted that their sexual encounter with the accuser was consensual, while she said it was not.
Mr. Parker was acquitted, but Mr. Celestin was convicted. The conviction was overturned in 2005, and prosecutors decided not to pursue new charges.
Phone transcripts between Mr. Parker and his accuser revealed that he did not admit guilt but told the woman that she shared responsibility for the incident.
What is different about Mr. Parker’s case?
“Roman Polanski and Woody Allen have track records of excellence, in addition to being somewhat beloved Hollywood personalities,” said Christian Toto, editor-in-chief of the conservative film and culture website Hollywood in Toto. “Nate Parker is the new kid on the block, a guy with a potentially great new movie, [and] rape culture is a significant topic now, even more so than it used to be.”
Mr. Parker had insisted in interviews and in a post on his Facebook page that he feels sorrow about the accuser’s death but is innocent of any crime. He has touted his life as a “man of faith,” a husband and a father to five daughters as proof that he is a decent man who respects women. So far, his critics have been unmoved.
The backlash against Mr. Parker has spread to “The Birth of a Nation,” which appropriates the title of one of the most important — and racist — films in American history and which was bought at Sundance for a record $17.5 million by Fox Searchlight.
Although its scheduled opening at the Toronto International Film Festival will continue as planned, the prestigious American Film Institute has canceled a scheduled screening and a question-and-answer session with Mr. Parker, stating an intent to host a panel discussing issues pertinent to the scandal.
The backlash has gone beyond festivals and gala screenings to questions of whether the film should be seen at all. The entertainment website Vulture featured a roundtable in which writers discussed whether it is morally justifiable to even see the film.
In her New York Times article to which Mr. Parker referred, Roxane Gay wrote: “Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or ‘important’ it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice.”
After Mr. Parker’s Ebony interview was published, Ms. Gay said on Twitter: “Okay, @NateParker. I see you listening. And trying to grow. I don’t know what to think but I see you.”
Cheryl Boone Isaacs, the first black president of the Academy of Motion Pictures who has made several changes to diversify the Academy “#OscarsSoWhite” membership, last week urged viewers to see the film and judge it apart from Mr. Parker’s person.
“That’s one issue. That’s his personal issue and then there’s the issue of the movie,” she told TMZ in a video interview. “And with the issue of the movie, the important thing is for people to see it and enjoy the film, be impressed by the film, and I think that is what is very important.”
“Birth of a Nation” also is replete with Christian themes — Turner was educated as a preacher-apologist for slavery but became a fiery preacher-critic of the “peculiar institution” — and Mr. Parker’s self-proclaimed faith involved plans to market the film to religious audiences.
Race also has factored into the controversy because Mr. Parker is black and his accuser was white.
“It’s a complex situation. Add the racial angle, and it means there are many factors at work you can focus on, depending on your own point of view,” said Mr. Toto.
Mr. Parker is not without his famous supporters. Al Sharpton has raced to Mr. Parker’s defense, accusing Hollywood and “right-wing media” of attempting to prevent an important black story from being told. Anthony Anderson, star of the ABC sitcom “black•ish,” also spoke out in favor of Mr. Parker, as did singer/activist Harry Belafonte.
Still, the road to the Oscars and other awards could be long and inhospitable for “The Birth of a Nation.” Marcia Nasatir, an Academy Awards voter, told The Hollywood Reporter: “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.”
Although the film’s Oscar prospects have dimmed, the race has barely begun.
“If it’s a tight Oscar race, a few votes could be the deciding factor,” said Mr. Toto. “Oscar season has become like a presidential campaign, involving personal issues and speeches and things that don’t technically have to do with the films themselves, but they do matter.”
“The Birth of a Nation” hits theaters Oct. 7.