Back at the rousing Sundance debut of “The Birth of a Nation” last January, from standing ovations to audience and jury prizes, writer-director-star Nate Parker was prepared to tell one narrative. The actor, now 36, had pursued a dogged eight-year course to make his directing debut — investing his own money and turning down jobs — with the historic story of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, which left more than 50 white people dead. Today, few people outside the African-American community, who view Turner as a hero, know who he was.
Parker was set to change all that. “I became obsessed with what I believed to be the potential impact [of the Nat Turner story],” he told Anderson Cooper on “60 Minutes” the Sunday before his movie opened in national theaters. Cooper asked: “Why is it important to know what happened to Nat Turner? To know what he did?,” Parker’s reply: “Well, why is it important to know about George Washington? Why is it important to know about the Revolutionary War?”
He goes on to say, “Resistance is an option, you know? This is not only the identity of Nat Turner, but it’s also the identity of America. Subjugation leads to revolution. And sometimes, it’s done with a sword … There’s a line in the film where his wife says, ‘They’re killing people everywhere for no reason at all but being black.’ This was the norm then. So too is it now in many ways, where unarmed black men are being killed and there’s no recourse. And we’re becoming desensitized to the fact that there’s no recourse.”
But something interfered with that narrative, on “60 Minutes” and everywhere else Parker tried to promote his movie. Parker just couldn’t get the media to return to it. That’s because it was overshadowed by his 1999 Penn State rape trial. And except for one candid interview in Ebony where Parker humbly admitted to his male entitlement, Parker has continued to do the wrong thing.
He has steadfastly maintained his innocence (he was acquitted of the charges) while insisting that his movie is the more important story.
He might have recovered from the college rape scandal, but the subsequent news that his still anonymous accuser committed suicide in 2012 — unknown to Parker or his distributor Fox Searchlight, which paid $17.5 million for the once-Oscar-bound drama — turned out to be far more sticky. Only last week, her sister Sharon Loeffler wrote about Parker’s exploitation of rape in “The Birth of a Nation.”
It’s one thing for well-known players who have already earned artistic cred to rise above such a media firestorm. It’s another for a relative unknown. While Parker is familiar to the indie community from acting turns in films such as Denzel Washington’s “The Great Debaters” and two dramas with writer-director Gina Prince-Bythewood (Searchlight’s “The Secret Life of Bees” and Relativity’s “Beyond the Lights”), many in Hollywood still do not know him.
There’s no question that Parker is navigating chilly waters. But at the recent Toronto International Film Festival, and now on “60 Minutes” — his most high-profile media appearance to date — whenever the charismatic director-actor is forced to revisit his college rape scandal, he refuses to do the one thing he needed to do from the start. Apologize.
He’s nothing if not consistent. On “60 Minutes” he said he was “vindicated” during his 1999 rape trial. “I was falsely accused,” Parker told Cooper when asked if he apologized to her family. “I went to court. I sat in trial. I was vindicated (choking up). I was proven innocent. I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that, but as I sit here, an apology is — no.”
When Anderson asked him: “Do you feel guilty — about anything that happened that night?” Parker responded: “I don’t feel guilty.”
“Do you feel you did something morally wrong?”
“As a Christian man, just being in that situation, yeah, sure. I’m 36 years old right now. And … and my faith is very important to me. You know, so looking back through that lens… I definitely feel like… it’s not the lens that I had when I was 19 years old.”
Parker does seems to have some consciousness that this shouldn’t be about him: “I don’t want to make myself the victim, you know,” he said, “you have to fight back the instinct to defend yourself. You know — you just gotta take it.”
However, he’s clearly more upset about the degree to which this old story has hurt his movie and career prospects than the impact his acts may have had on the woman or her family.
When Cooper asked Parker what he’d say to those who’ve said they’re not going to see this film because of the accusations against him, he replied: “I do feel that’s unfortunate. I think of Nat Turner as a hero, what he did in history is bigger than me. I think it’s bigger than all of us.”
Parker went with Searchlight over a $20-million Netflix offer because he hoped the distributor who took “12 Years a Slave” to a Best Picture win could also boost his film. When exiled and convicted sex offender Roman Polanski was nominated for “The Pianist,” his publicists worked hard to separate the man from the movie, which he did little to promote. He went on to earn Best Director. But relative unknown Parker can’t seem to make that turn. He wants to be graded on his merits as an artist, for his movie to have an impact.
Parker doesn’t seem to realize that the only way to move on, to put the old story behind him, is to admit that it was wrong for two friends to have sex with a woman who said she was so intoxicated that she was passing in and out of consciousness.
Now Searchlight is hoping to promote a popular hit to mainstream African-American as well as adult arthouse audiences, despite a tainted frontman. (The “60 Minutes” interview could not have turned out the way they had hoped.) The fact that this tough, unrelenting portrait of slavery also shows the rape of women, played by Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union (who has spoken out about the movie in light of her own rape), only made their course more challenging.
Lionsgate’s “Precious,” with six Oscar nominations and two wins, totaled $68 million at the box office. Weinstein Co. took Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” to $177 million worldwide without a single Oscar nomination. We shall see what narrative dominates when “The Birth of a Nation” — which demonstrably does play well to audiences — opens October 7.