For a brief moment in time Nate Parker was the Belle of the ball. When The Birth of a Nation premiered at the Sundance Film Festival to kick off 2016, it was like a late Christmas present for Hollywood. The film quickly made news for being the largest acquisition ever out of the festival with Fox Searchlight paying a whopping $17.5 million. The festival success didn't end there, as the historical drama took home the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. By the festival's closing curtain, Hollywood, Fox Searchlight and Nate Parker were all winners.
Nate Parker not only starred in the film, but he co-wrote and directed it. Considering that he's African American, the film looked to be a savior for Hollywood and the Academy. After having an Awards show that got politicized for not having enough African American nominees, The Birth of a Nation would have helped correct the status quo for next year's Oscar season. Parker alone could have been listed on at least four nominations, long before getting into the supporting cast and crew. Because of this, Nate Parker was immediately pumped up by the studio to be the face of the film.
Besides awards, Fox Searchlight saw obvious box office potential for the film, and immediately started prepping for a wide fall release.
But then shit hit the fan.
The Birth of a Nation Hit with Rape Allegations
Fox Searchlight had over half a year to make Nate Parker the face of The Birth of a Nation, and in that regard they were extremely successful. The promotional materials even made sure to print "A Nate Parker Film". The marketing plan should have worked, if it wasn't for one major criminal charge from over a decade ago.
Rape is such a polarizing topic nowadays that the word has come taboo unless you say it with some sort of angry emphasis. In that regard, Nate Parker likely would have received better treatment had he murdered someone in 1999, did his time, and came back to make this movie. He was never accused of murder however and was instead accused of rape. While Hollywood has a tendency to be politically hypocritical, the industry wasn't going to take any chances. Fox Searchlight didn't do much to defend their once-star director, and instead made sure to limit the film's marketing campaign. A campaign that still depended on Nate Parker to make the rounds.
While an apology to the victim would have been a good start, the story becomes even more tragic when it was revealed that the person who reported the rape later committed suicide.
It Gets Worse for Nate Parker
Audiences are a forgiving bunch, but their level of tolerance only goes so far. When it was also suggested that Parker intimidated the girl on campus after the incident, Fox Searchlight's rising star quickly fizzled out.
Falling out of favor with Hollywood and the media, everybody seemed to become more critical of The Birth of a Nation. The perfect movie out of Sundance was no longer so perfect. Historians have begun to come forward to argue that the film is not historically accurate. One such detail debated was, wait for it, a rape scene that is described as "invented". So a screenwriter with a rape accusation in his past added an unnecessary rape scene to help his character's story arc. Seems inappropriate, at best.
The Birth of a Nation Box Office Flop
Flop might be a big word considering the purchase price, but The Birth of a Nation could have been so much more. The film grossed close to $10 million during it's opening weekend. While it should be on track to make back its investment for Fox Searchlight, the studio has to be disappointed. Remember, this was just about the only film talked about for the first few months in 2016. I can't even count how many times we were told it was an "Oscar contender."
While it is still entirely possible that the film (and Nate) could receive Oscar nominations, it would only carry the rape drama into the awards show. And, though the Academy is desperate to have some black representation in next year's Oscars, they are likely to avoid any accusations of rape like the plague.