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‘The Birth of A Nation’: What Fox Searchlight Faces As It Plows Forward With A Tainted Oscar Frontrunner

Fox Searchlight's job is to open their controversial $17.5 million Sundance buy on October 7, even if their charismatic director-star is being forced to revisit his college rape scandal.

The Birth of a Nation

Armie Hammer and Nate Parker in “The Birth of a Nation”

As Sundance moments go, the reception for “The Birth of a Nation” was unheard of. The audience gave writer-director-actor Nate Parker a standing ovation before the film began. Now his movie is facing another kind of reception, also unheard of: He must promote the movie while being shadowed by his 1999 rape trial, and news that the accuser committed suicide in 2012.

There are no real precedents for Parker’s situation.

READ MORE: Nate Parker Writes ‘Devastated’ Facebook Response to College Rape Trial and Accuser’s Suicide

Fox Searchlight executives are presenting a united front. Here’s their official statement: “Searchlight is aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”

Nate Parker Sundance Institute

Nate Parker receiving the Vanguard Award at the Sundance Institute’s Night Before Next

Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of Sundance Institute

Inside the company, they’re not abandoning hope of an Oscar. However, already they realize that they can no longer go out wearing that ambition on their sleeves — which is quite something when they won the film in a $17.5 million deal shortly after that Sundance screening. 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 movie about the historic Nat Turner slave rebellion. In fact, taking the movie on a national speaking tour to colleges was part of the deal. Sure enough, Oscar pundits declared the drama an early Oscar frontrunner, partly because it followed the year of #oscarssowhite.

And thus Searchlight executives and Parker will doggedly move forward with planned appearances and interviews at September’s Toronto International Film Festival and other cities ahead of a wide 1500-1800 screen October 7 release. They’re hoping to promote a popular hit to mainstream African-American as well as adult arthouse audiences, despite a tainted frontman.

Whatever the film’s reception may prove to be, the promo tour could prove a real test to any publicity being good publicity. There’s the “Nate Parker, Rapist?” posters that have appeared around West LA; the proliferation of essays weighing the value of the film versus his past; the court documents that detail the case for anyone who wants to read them.

It’s one thing for well-known players who have already earned artistic cred to rise above a scandal. It’s another for a relative unknown. While Parker is familiar to the indie community from acting turns in such films 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. This is not a celebrity bad boy who people secretly admire for his rascally behavior (pot-smoker Robert Mitchum), or a drug abuser who gains warm support when he goes straight (Robert Downey, Jr.), or an Oscar-winning director (Elia Kazan) who many considered a snitch during the McCarthy Communist witch hunt, or an Oscar-winning director-star who loses control of his hate demons when he drinks (Mel Gibson).

Some have forgiven Gibson, who is getting strong advance buzz for his return to the directing chair with Venice world premiere “Hacksaw Ridge.” Others never will.

Parker is not Woody Allen, who continues to score Oscar nominations despite the repeated accusations from his 12-year-partner Mia Farrow and her children that he sexually abused his then-seven-year-old adopted daughter Dylan Farrow 22 years ago. (He was never charged.) Allen addressed the issue again after the Cannes opening of “Cafe Society,” which went on to become a summer hit.

Roman Polanski in Chinatown

Roman Polanski in “Chinatown”

Paramount Pictures

Nor is Parker like sex offender Roman Polanski, who was held for 42 days in prison, plead guilty to having unlawful sex with a minor, and fled the country to self-imposed exile. Polanski had been nominated for two Oscars before his arrest (“Rosemary’s Baby” and “Chinatown”) and was nominated twice after (“Tess” and “The Pianist”), winning Best Director for the latter. At the time, his publicists worked hard to separate the man from the movie, which he did little to promote. Again, while many around the world still decry Polanski’s misdeeds, within the film industry at least, he is mostly graded on his merits as an artist.

Parker began making the L.A. rounds after Sundance, appearing at Oscar circuit award shows and meeting top studio players such as Fox’s Stacey Snider, who is standing behind her Searchlight team. She’s faced this kind of firestorm before as chairman at Universal during the release of biopics “The Hurricane” and “A Beautiful Mind,” which both suffered Oscar season controversy. The first one was accused of rewriting history and wound up with a solo Oscar nomination for Denzel Washington, while the other’s star, Russell Crowe, pinned an executive to the wall after the BAFTA Awards, likely costing him his second Oscar. By the time Crowe threw a phone at a hotel clerk during the release of “Cinderella Man” four years later, the gifted Australian actor’s career had peaked. After three Oscar nominations in a row and one win for “Gladiator,” Crowe never earned another nomination.

Finally, Hollywood will come to know Parker and will judge him accordingly.  If there is no pattern to his behavior, he will move on with his life and career, with or without awards attention. (Remarkably, Anthony Weiner almost won his race for mayor of New York until yet another sexting scandal dive-bombed him.)

“I don’t know who this guy is,” said one veteran publicist. “Sometimes you get to the table and you know they’re a jerk or a really nice guy.”

Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in "Beyond the Lights"

Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw in “Beyond the Lights”

Relativity Media

As Fox Searchlight pushes ahead with their TV spots, trailers and visual marketing materials (and will likely pull back on the Nat Turner noose image that has been reformatted by a local artist, which is not in theaters), they are staying focused on the job at hand: opening the movie. They have an array of poster images to turn to—including one shaped around the American flag. They are still finalizing taking Parker on that deal-mandated college tour, which sprang from his sincere mission to educate and enlighten people about a significant piece of buried American history. The studio believes the African-American community will rally to support the movie.

On the other hand, neither Spike Lee, who praised the film at a Martha’s Vineyard panel last weekend, nor “The Birth of a Nation” supporters Ava DuVernay and Oprah Winfrey, have stepped up to give Parker public support since the rape/suicide news. While this is not an O.J. Simpson situation where Parker will be widely shunned and ostracized, many, in an era when Bill Cosby and Roger Ailes have lost their careers due to their serially abusive behavior, will not give Parker a complete pass for having sex with a woman who said she was so intoxicated that she was passing in and out of consciousness.

READ MORE: Nate Parker: Why He’s Speaking Out Against 1999 Rape Accusations Before ‘Birth of a Nation’ Awards Cycle

Searchlight’s first priority is to make the film a commercial hit. Then they can see where they stand. Lionsgate’s “Precious,” with six nominations and two wins, totaled $68 million. Weinstein Co. took Lee Daniels’ “The Butler” to $177 million worldwide without a single Oscar nomination.

One Academy member at least plans to keep an open mind. “I’ve never met Nate Parker,” said ex-Universal chairman and AFI board member Tom Pollock, who wrestled with some controversial films in his day, from Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” to Martin Scorsese’s “The Last Temptation of Christ.” “I will try not to judge Nate Parker by the things I hear about him. I hear good things about ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and can’t wait to see it.”

But this tough, unrelenting portrait of slavery also shows the rape of women, played by Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union. Like Parker, they will have to go on the road and talk about it.

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