As Nate Parker Controversy Continues, AFI Cancels ‘Birth of a Nation’ Screening
Fox Searchlight may be continuing their fall release plans for Nate Parker‘s The Birth of the Nation, but that doesn’t mean other early screenings will go according to plan. The American Film Institute announced on Tuesday they’ve canceled a planned screening of the film in wake of Parker’s 1999 sexual assault case that’s recently garnered attention, according to The Hollywood Reporter.
In 1999, Parker and his then-roommate Jean Celestin were accused of sexually assaulting an unnamed woman while they were both students and athletes at Penn State. Parker was acquitted of charges and while Celestin (who also shares a story credit on The Birth of a Nation) was initially found guilty, his conviction was later overturned. Deadline recently brought the rape case to mainstream attention in an interview with Parker, which also included links to published court transcripts and a disturbing phone transcript of a conversation between Parker and the unnamed woman.
While Parker may have hoped addressing the allegations ahead of release would get any controversy out of the way early and revert attention to his movie, that’s far from what’s happened. Soon after the Deadline interview Variety reported that the unnamed victim had committed suicide in 2012, which Parker responded to on his Facebook page. Fake posters for The Birth of a Nation began popping up around Los Angeles with Parker’s face and the text “Rapist?” And many have already begun protesting seeing the film, including author Roxane Gay in an op-ed for The New York Times.
The film, which sold for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight at Sundance and has been buzzed as an early Oscar contender, was expected to screen at AFI’s special “Opening Day” event for second-year film students. AFI dean Jan Schuette announced in a message to fellows that the Friday screening had been called off in place of a “moderated discussion” about issues relating to the sexual assault case. “I have been the recipient of many different passionate points of view about the screening, and I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together — messenger and message, gender, race and more — before we see the film,” Schuette wrote. “Next week, we will be scheduling a special moderated discussion so we may explore these issues together as artists and audience.” Schuette noted that AFI still plans to screen the film eventually, which Fox has agreed to. Jack Reacher: Never Go Back will screen instead for the school’s “Opening Day.”
Schuette’s approach is an interesting one, since discussions about sexual assault cases surrounding a piece of art are difficult ones to have. Do we separate the art from the artists? Should we? It’s incredible that an important film like The Birth of a Nation, which follows Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, is getting mainstream attention. But can a film have its own life and own cultural significance outside of the filmmaker’s real-life controversy?
These are the same questions we’ve recently wrestled with around Bill Cosby and Woody Allen, and they are questions that warrant such discussion. It will be interesting to see how the rest of The Birth of a Nation‘s release will take place, if other early screenings will continue, be canceled, or take an approach similar to AFI’s. Whatever happens, Fox Searchlight said last week that the studio still intends to release The Birth of a Nation on October 7.