Once considered to be an Oscar frontrunner and a prime example of the perseverance that can push independent film to new heights, Nate Parker’s directorial debut “The Birth of a Nation” has instead spent the last few months plagued by controversy and scandal, as Parker’s involvement in a 1999 rape case came to light mere weeks before the film hit theaters. (It has underperformed at the box office.) Parker’s role in the incident — and his subsequent reaction to the media attention heaped on the case — has overshadowed the film, which Fox Searchlight had been pinning awards hopes on since the distributor purchased it at Sundance in January.
Parker is hardly the only member of the “Birth” team impacted by the fallout, and when IndieWire recently spoke to executive producer and early champion Edward Zwick, the filmmaker was honest about how the experience has affected a team that came together with extraordinary hopes and ambitions for the long-gestating story of Nat Turner and his rebellion.
“It’s been painful,” Zwick said when asked about the controversy surrounding the film. “It is a very complex circumstance. And so I feel for [Parker], but obviously, mostly you feel for a very, very problematic circumstance and a tragic circumstance for a young woman.”
Although Zwick got on board the project early and even advised Parker on the narrative structure of his screenplay, the filmmaker seems to have been surprised by the allegations waged against Parker so long ago. And the eventual fallout — plus Parker’s own reactions to the controversy — do not seem to have helped matters much.
“Obviously, we feel upset by the things that we didn’t know about Nate’s past,” Zwick admitted. “[And] on the other hand, upset for him in the box in which he’s been put, which is a real box of how to respond to a thing in the past, how much responsibility, culpability and what is the proper way to behave? How does one present contrition? What is enough?”
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For Zwick, who has produced both film and television during his nearly four-decade career and boasts a Best Picture win for 1998’s “Shakespeare in Love,” Parker’s film offered him the chance to work in the kind of passionate and collaborative environment he so values. And it’s still something he’s proud of helping make happen.
“I think the fact that Nate devoted as long as he did and put as much on the line to accomplish it for a political end and a personal end, is a very beautiful thing,” the producer said. “And we engaged and encouraged a lot of people to devote and to sacrifice a lot to work for nothing, and to give of their time and their money and everything to do it.”
Zwick, of course, recognizes that no matter the circumstances that went into the creation of the film, they have been derailed by the unforeseen — and unknown — events that have plagued the film and its star for months. His dismay is acute and obvious.
“It’s painful because the intentions were born of such idealism and purity,” he said. “To then have it become, oddly, a different narrative, is painful because inevitably, that purity or that intention is colored by everything else that has surrounded it.”
“The Birth of a Nation” is currently in theaters. Zwick’s latest directorial outing, “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” is in theaters on Friday, October 21.