Nate Parker’s Cinderella story took a decidedly darker turn Friday morning with a Deadline piece in which the filmmaker behind “The Birth of a Nation” gave an extended interview acknowledging his role in a 1999 rape charge, when he was a student at Penn State.
You can read the details here, but the upshot is he and “The Birth of a Nation” co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin had sex with a fellow student — an incident that, they said, was consensual; she says she was passed-out drunk and unable to give consent. The case went to trial, and Parker was acquitted while Celestin’s conviction was overturned on appeal.
This comes the morning after Parker received the Vanguard Award at the Sundance Institute’s Night Before Next benefit, where he also announced the Institute’s launch of The Birth of a Nation Fellowship for 18-to-24-year-old filmmakers who participate in the Institute’s Ignite program.
Distributor Fox Searchlight clearly decided the best defense was a good offense by granting this interview — a smart move since, as Parker acknowledges, the charge has long been part of public record. It’s on his Wikipedia page, and he first discussed the case with a reporter nearly a decade ago, when The Virginian-Pilot profiled him as a young actor in his first major role, opposite Denzel Washington in “The Great Debaters.”
He stops short of making a public apology, but he speaks at length about the incident, and even ties it back to his film:
I can’t control the way people feel. What I can do, is be the most honorable man I can be. Live my life with the most integrity that I can, stand against injustice everywhere I see it, lead charges against injustice, against people of color, against the LGBT community. That’s me. The black community is my community, the LGBT community too, and the female community. That is my community. That me, it’s who I am. When I made this film, I said if you’ve got injustice, this is your film. And I’m coming. That is the legacy I want to leave behind. I can’t change anything.
Parker’s forthright attitude is admirable. That said, it’s a nasty set of charges, as the court documents lay out. And the question on everyone’s minds is how this might impact the fortunes of Parker’s filmmaking debut.
Searchlight wisely dropped the story on a Friday, in the middle of the August doldrums, before the fall festival coverage kicks in: The perfect place for a story to wither from lack of attention. As to whether the plan will work — well, that’s anyone’s guess, but considering the circumstances all parties have done the very best they could. It’s hard to say if that’s enough; while Parker was tried and acquitted, the behavior described was grotesque and, for some, that’s unforgivable.
As a film, “The Birth of a Nation” won’t develop its full critical profile until its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, with the release to follow October 7. As an Oscar narrative, it stands to benefit from the #blacklivesmatter and #oscarssowhite movements that continue to resonate. And Searchlight is clearly doing everything it can to prevent the film from fusing with another powerful narrative, one that’s associated with filmmakers like Woody Allen, Roman Polanski, and Mel Gibson: #greatfilmmakerswhodidheinousthings.
Personal controversy isn’t a frequent player in Oscar campaigns. The most recent had Woody Allen facing charges of sexual abuse during the 2013 release of “Blue Jasmine,” for which star Cate Blanchett won an Oscar. Russell Crowe threw a phone at a hotel clerk shortly after the June 2005 release of Ron Howard’s “Cinderella Man.” He didn’t receive an Oscar nomination, while co-star Paul Giamatti did — but the movie was also a box-office disappointment. Meg Ryan’s 2000 affair with Crowe was perceived as hurting her chances for an Oscar with Taylor Hackford’s “Proof of Life” — but that film didn’t win any prizes.
“The Birth of a Nation” proved to be an explosive birth for Parker: He, and the film, were practically dubbed Oscar frontrunners before the the first frame premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year. And Searchlight paid $17 million for the rights, a bid that bested Netflix’s $20 million offer in part because Searchlight has an Oscar-winning history that includes “12 Years a Slave.”
By comparison, Searchlight wanted to handle this would-be crisis as more of a controlled explosion, the kind used to prevent avalanches. Any attempt to downplay this story, much less bury it, would hand ammunition to their Oscar-consulting competitors.
All that said: It’s impossible to imagine an interview of this length, scope, and transparency with Woody Allen. Or Roman Polanski. And, it’s likely that Parker will have to talk about this again. According to him, however, he expects nothing less, telling Deadline:
I have been very clear with everyone. Anyone who wants to talk to me, I will talk to them. The issue itself is so serious and I care deeply for the rights of women, and I care very deeply for the safety of our women and our students. And with this thing, all I can do is keep telling me the truth.