Since it swept the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prizes and sold in a stunning $17.5 million worldwide rights deal to Fox Searchlight at January’s Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation has been considered a front-runner film in the Oscar race.
The wrenching, brutal depiction of the Nat Turner-led slave uprising in 1831 Virginia was a welcome respite from the outcry over a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees the past two years that haunted the Academy and led to sweeping overhauls. Who better to root for than Parker, an actor who, not satisfied to be considered a name on a casting director’s list, wrote his own second act and scripted, directed, produced and starred in a film considered every bit as powerful as 12 Years A Slave?
A brewing controversy threatens to challenge the trajectory of that inspiring narrative. Memories of 17-year-old rape charges waged against both Parker and Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares co-story credit with Parker) while they were roommates at Penn State in 1999 left Fox Searchlight in full crisis mode these past weeks, scrambling to figure out how best to protect its sizable investment and Oscar chances by getting in front of a disclosure that is bubbling up in the mainstream press.
The transcripts of the trial are public record and readily available, as Deadline discovered — the clerk there offered that numerous inquiries have been made recently — and the play-by-play is a sordid he-said-she-said affair that pitted a female student against Parker and Celestin. She claimed both men had sex with her after she had passed out in their room following a night of drinking. They claimed the encounter was consensual.
Traumatized, she subsequently dropped out of college, and attempted suicide, per court documents. Parker, who had an earlier mutually willing sexual encounter with the student, was acquitted of the charges. Celestin initially was convicted, but that was overturned on appeal and his case was not retried.
Why would an incident that ended in Parker’s acquittal nearly two decades ago be at all relevant in a movie that took place in Antebellum Virginia? It wouldn’t, if Parker — who studied management science and information systems with the intention of a career in IT, computer programming and management before he fell into acting — hadn’t remade his career to where he is on the cusp of being an A-list writer-director, and potential Oscar front-runner.
Oscar history tells us there are no secrets during awards season. Having become fully aware of those old charges in the months since it bought the film, Fox Searchlight has been looking to pre-empt any late-season bombshells that might land while voters have ballots in hand. Also, one of the flash points for the uprising in The Birth of a Nation is the brutal rape of Turner’s wife Cherry, which strikes a match that flares into murderous rebellion against white slave-holders and the institutionalized cruelty that has never been exposed to this level in a major film.
Parker, with Fox Searchlight’s support, has decided to face this 17-year-old legal matter, head on. Hours before receiving the prestigious Vanguard Award from the Sundance Institute, Parker invited a Deadline reporter to his home Thursday – remnants of the five daughters who live with him all around – to look him in the eye and discuss the case.
He spoke about how he has grown as a man, a father and an artist since that night at Penn State. And how he is determined not to let his worthy film be defined by that case, lest it detract from his mission to use Turner’s story as a catalyst for discussion on the turbulence between blacks and whites that has roiled major cities across the country this year. He firmly believes some of these tensions are connected to that shameful chapter of slavery in America.
“My responsibility as a filmmaker, an actor, an artist and an American is to say this period in history was more egregious than we were led to believe, and it had an impact on all of us,” Parker said of the film. “Frederick Douglass said, ‘When I became free, I began to see the impact that slavery had not only on the slave but on the slave master.’ My film doesn’t shake a finger at someone for being born in the ’90s with pink skin. It says that because you were born in the ’90s, you have some stuff that might live in your heart and the hearts of those around you. Let’s collectively address that. For the person with brown skin, who was born in the ’80s or ’90s, you weren’t born into slavery in 1831, but we have all inherited stuff we didn’t create.”
For Parker, the film is about curing through catharsis. “Psychologists will tell you, until there is honest confrontation, there can be no healing,” he said. “We can’t just skip the healing part and say, ‘Get over it.’ It’s in me, you, and the air we breathe. If I have a gash and it’s infected, one of two things is going to happen: Put some alcohol and let it burn away infection, sew it up and heal it, or it gets worse to the point real complications occur that maybe had nothing to do with that initial gash. That is what we’re dealing with.”