The timing couldn't have been better.
Amid the #OscarsSoWhite uproar, The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance Film Festival in January and immediately was hailed for depicting an important untold chapter of American history and introducing a talented African-American filmmaking voice in Nate Parker.
But nine months later, with Parker's past being held up to mass public scrutiny, “all of that is lost,” says Shawn Edwards, co-founder of the African American Film Critics Association and a film critic for a Fox affiliate in Kansas City, Mo.
Allegations that Parker, 36, raped a female student in 1999 when he was a college wrestler at Penn State now threaten to derail the awards-season potential of Birth of a Nation — once an early front-runner for best picture at the 2017 Oscars — and damage his career.
Co-written, produced and directed by Parker, Birth of a Nation (in theaters nationwide Friday) also casts him as Nat Turner, a slave-turned-preacher in antebellum Virginia who organized a violent rebellion.
“If the director of Avengers 2 had been accused of rape when he was in college, it wouldn’t matter at all because the general public is going to be locked in and go see that because it’s a blockbuster,” Edwards says. “But when you have a fringe film like The Birth of a Nation, the average person really hadn’t heard of the movie until it was associated with the word ‘rape.’ ”
Sexual misconduct is nothing new in the private lives of Hollywood filmmakers and movie stars, says Peter Lehman, director of the Arizona State University Center for Film, Media and Popular Culture. He points to Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle, a popular silent-film actor whose career was hurt by rape allegations in the 1920s.
Since then, two high-profile directors have been inextricably linked to indecent behavior: Woody Allen, the Oscar-winning legend who has been dogged for years by allegations he sexually abused his adopted daughter Dylan but was never charged, and Roman Polanski, who was convicted of having sex with a 13-year-old girl in 1977 and fled the country.
The main difference between them and Parker’s situation: Birth of a Nation “is really his coming-out party as an artist,” says Jeff Bock, senior box office analyst for Exhibitor Relations. “With Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, it happened later in their career after they had already established themselves.”
Today's social media gives those who see injustice — especially Millennial women — a megaphone for protests that studios or the mainstream media could shut out in the past, says Mark Feldstein, Eaton Chair of Broadcast Journalism at the University of Maryland.
“Certainly the kind of thing that the old-boy male culture of Hollywood might have swept under the rug a few years ago now can take on a life of its own, as a female constituency that has purchasing power makes their voices heard,” Feldstein says.
Erik Davis, managing editor for Movies.com and Fandango.com, recalls being in the crowd at Sundance for the world premiere of Birth of a Nation, “and it received one of the most powerful reactions I’ve ever seen in a movie theater.”
But Nation has had a rocky road ever since. Parker, who was tried and acquitted in 2001, had discussed the rape scandal as far back as 2007 in an interview with The (Norfolk) Virginian-Pilot. "If I had it my way, it would never be brought up again," Parker said at the time. (His friend and teammate, Nation co-writer Jean Celestin, was convicted, a charge later overturned.)
In August, it was brought up again. Parker talked about the allegations in an interview with Deadline ahead of the film’s release, but just days later Variety reported that the woman in the case committed suicide in 2012. “I am filled with profound sorrow,” Parker wrote on Facebook after learning the news. “I have never run from this period of my life and I never ever will.”
Fox Searchlight, which bought Nation for $17.5 million, responded with a statement that noted the studio was aware of the trial but "we stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen."
Since then, although screenings of Birth of a Nation have been received well at events such as last month’s Toronto International Film Festival, Parker has been the focus of a social media backlash. On 60 Minutes Sunday, he tearfully called the incident “tragic” but didn’t apologize. (He also visited Good Morning America as part of his media rounds but declined a sitdown interview with USA TODAY.)
Critical support for Birth of a Nation has been strong, with 82% favorable reviews on aggregate site RottenTomatoes.com. Rolling Stone called it "a monumental achievement," while the Associated Press wrote that Nation is "a fine and promising debut from Parker" that juxtaposes "unimaginable human injustices with both lyrical spirituality and shocking violence."
Whether audiences will actually go see Nation is difficult to anticipate because the rape allegations are “such a polarizing part of the conversation,” says Bock, who predicts first-weekend earnings of $12 million to $16 million — about what the film would have made at the box office without the controversy. It could break $20 million, he says, “just because of curiosity.”
Edwards argues that Birth of a Nation was always going to have challenges attracting an audience. The fraught political climate, in which protests break out when unarmed black men are shot by police, might make it tough for many to watch a movie about slaves revolting. And there are black moviegoers who are uncomfortable with films set in that era.
“It put a lot of people in the African-American community on the fence, especially black women,” Edwards says. “Another movie about slavery, plus its association with rape, makes it easy for them to say, ‘No, thank you.’ ”
Recent promotional efforts by Parker have done nothing to sway prominent writers like Roxane Gay, who wrote in a New York Times essay that she was avoiding Nation. “I am still not going to see the film,” Gay tells USA TODAY in an email, pointing to her piece, in which she stated that “I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity.”
And what of its Academy Award chances, which looked so high early on? One thing in Nation’s favor: “Oscar voters are a whole different breed of creature than the person who you see angry on social media,” Davis says. Awards pundits haven't forgotten the film either: 13 of 23 experts on GoldDerby.com predicted a best-picture nomination.
Between the Internet and the rise of social justice, “every film tends to have some kind of controversy attached to it,” says Sasha Stone, Oscar expert and founder of AwardsDaily.com.
Argo, which centered on a CIA rescue mission in Iran, weathered questions of historical accuracy and went on to win three Oscars in 2013, including best picture. Not so lucky was Suffragette, a drama last fall that launched a slew of online think pieces about its focus on white women. Throw in Meryl Streep wearing an unintentionally offensive “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” T-shirt, and the movie disappointed with critics and Oscar voters alike.
“It gave people an easy out and that is I’m afraid what will happen with Birth of a Nation,” Stone says. “It would have been a hard sell anyway with academy members, but this controversy will give them an excuse not to watch it and not to vote for it.”
Although 12 Years a Slave won three Oscars in 2014, including best picture, Stone predicts a shutout for Nation: “I’ve been watching the Oscars for 20 years, and they don’t tend to do anybody any favors when it comes to this sort of thing. They’re not going to take Nate Parker’s cause into their own hands.”
Plus, Edwards says, the academy has other options to help avoid a three-peat of #OscarsSoWhite, which was a response to worthy African-American actors and black-centered films being passed over for Academy Award nominations. This year, diverse-leaning films Moonlight, Fences, Queen of Katwe, Loving and Hidden Figures all figure into the mix. “They can easily brush The Birth of a Nation aside.”
Not that it's right. "The controversy is 100% unfair," Edwards says. "What someone does in their personal lives or what Nate Parker did 17 years ago has nothing to do with the cinematic merit of a movie. That’s what awards consideration is supposed to be all about."
As far as Parker’s future, Stone says the only way he could remedy his situation is by working in a positive way on the issue of campus sexual assaults, perhaps donating proceeds from the film to victims and going to colleges to educate student athletes.
The fate of the movie, though, seems more definite in Edwards’ eyes.
“It’s going to forever be tainted,” he says. “Because of things like Wikipedia and social media, that controversy will always be associated with The Birth of a Nation. You can’t wipe that away. That’s the most unfortunate thing about this.”
Contributing: Andrea Mandell