Ramin Setoodeh and Brent Lang, Variety, August 15, 2016
Executives at Fox Searchlight are scrambling to deal with the aftermath of a series of interviews last week in which the star and director of “The Birth of A Nation,” Nate Parker, addressed a rape trial from his past.
The specialty films division bet big on the indie at the Sundance Film Festival, shelling out a record-breaking $17.5 million for drama about the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, hoping it would enter the zeitgeist at a time when racial issues are at the forefront of American politics.
But now, the studio is taking a wait and see approach to a proposed ambitious release plan that had called for extensive outreach to church groups, college campuses and prominent Hollywood figures. Parker not only stars in “The Birth of a Nation ”–he also wrote, directed and produced the film.
Fox Searchlight declined to comment on this article. In a statement on Friday, the studio said: “Fox 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.”
Despite the fact that Parker was acquitted of the rape charges in 2001, there are still concerns inside Fox Searchlight that the complicated issues raised by the case could overshadow a movie that was expected to be an Oscar front-runner. Parker’s co-writer on the film, Jean Celestin, was found guilty of sexually assaulting the same 18-year-old female, who claimed to be unconscious, after a night of drinking. Celestin appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial in 2005, but the case never made it back to court after the victim decided not to testify again.
Searchlight is also still trying to determine what the impact of the 1999 Penn State case will have on Parker as the face of the “The Birth of the Nation.” Part of the sales agreement for the film called for the label to support a roadshow that would have sent Parker around the country, to churches and college campuses, discussing issues of social justice. But each public appearance runs the risk of journalists or audience members reviving details of the court case and raising difficult questions.
A rival distribution executive said that Searchlight would need to give Parker better media training: “That means coaching him carefully. If he responds badly to a question, everything gets worse.” The distribution executive also wondered if the charges could upset enough potential Oscar voters to derail the film’s hopes for Academy Awards attention.
In 1999, Parker, a student and wrestler at Penn State, and Celestin were charged with raping a female classmate in their apartment after a night of drinking. The woman claimed she was unconscious at the time, while Parker and Celestin maintained that the encounter was consensual. Both men were suspended from the wrestling team, and Parker later transferred to a different college in Oklahoma.
Parker and the victim had an earlier sexual encounter that both said was consensual, a detail that was emphasized by his legal team in court. The victim said she was harassed by the men after she reported the incident to police. She dropped out of college, and settled with Penn State for $17,500 in a separate legal action.