Back at Sundance, ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was purchased by Fox-Searchlight for a whopping $17.5 million dollars, the highest amount ever paid for a film at that festival. They bought the film at the height of the diversity crisis within the Academy, with full intent on campaigning the film for Academy Awards this year, and coming out of Sundance the film seemed headed for Oscar glory, and multiple nominations for Nate Parker for Best Film, Director and Screenwriter.
Selected to be showcased at TIFF, all signs pointed to a perfect Oscar campaign for the film and the artist. It seemed The Birth of a Nation could not lose.
Then the past came forward to hit Mr. Parker hard.
Accused and charged of rape in his college days, he was acquitted, but the young lady involved committed suicide in 2012. Parker took the young lady out for dinner, they came back to his place, she was drunk, he says she consented to sex, his roommate was invited to join them, and all hell broke loose. Both men were charged with rape, Parker was acquitted, his roommate was found guilty and sentenced to jail time. Later there was a re-trial but many of the witnesses had scattered so it was let go and (I believe) stricken from his record.
Parker had his day in court, and he was found not guilty. The fact is no one knows what really happened between the three people that night except those three people. No one. No matter what anyone thinks, believes or had heard, the truth is between the three of them and no one else, that is a fact. Yes Parker was acquitted but many feel is morally guilty of rape. I am not going to choose one side or the other because frankly I’m not in a position to.
But, this is what I know, Nate Parker has made a very powerful film that could still make the Oscar lists as a nominee. I think he is finished as a Best Actor nominee, he might even be done as Best Director, but I cannot imagine the Academy ignoring the film for Best Picture. Though laden with cliches and torments we have seen before, The Birth of a Nation is still a very powerful piece of filmmaking. It tells a little known true story of a black preacher who organized a group of slaves and lashed back at their masters, killing sixty whites in three days. Indeed, it is a story I was not aware of, and made for a searing film experience.
Is it a great film you ask? No. Clearly a vanity project written by Parker for himself, acted by Parker and directed by Parker there are far too many big moments for the actor, far too many close ups. Those facts alone might have eliminated him from the Best Actor and Best Director race before his past took care of that. The Academy must be in shock because this film might have dealt with all their diversity issues left over from the past two years. Granted there are other films to take care of that, but this had a historical attachment and we know how the Academy loves their history lessons. Some believe the films Oscar chances are dead, maybe, but I am not sure the Academy can ignore the film. It deals with an important piece of history for African-Americans and is a well liked and widely admired film, with a high profile within the industry. I expect if they snub it there will be howls of protest despite everything against Parker.
I do not know if Parker raped that young woman, and I do not pretend to know, I refuse to play judge and jury. I was sickened when Roman Polanski won an Oscar for The Pianist (2002) because he IS a convicted rapist, further, of a child which makes his crime even more repellant and does not belong in the company of Oscar winners. Found guilty, the Polish director fled the United States before he could be jailed. Why does he deserve to be among the Oscar nominees? So, if Parker raped that young girl — and again, I honestly do not know — then no he DOES NOT belong among the nominees. And with Parker’s own fate, it is also the film’s fate that hangs in balance.