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The Toronto Film Festival is The Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker’s first time in a festival spotlight since the storm of controversy over details of his college rape trial surfaced this summer. Will the scrutinized TIFF screenings allow his film to finally take center stage — or will it further deepen the controversy?
It’s been just eight months since Parker’s Nat Turner biopic received a standing ovation before the movie even screened, later selling to Fox Searchlight in a record $17.5 million deal. “It was almost like confirmation that people were ready for this movement, even more so than they were ready for the film,” Parker told The Hollywood Reporter that January night. The Cinderella-like Sundance experience seemed to cement the film’s fate as an awards frontrunner.
But everything came unglued in August when Parker, who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, was interviewed about the 1999 rape case in which he and Penn State friend and Birth co-writer Jean Celestin were accused by a female classmate of rape. The details of the trial (Parker was acquitted and Celestin was found guilty before the conviction was overturned on appeal) and the news that the accuser had committed suicide in 2012 caused many to wonder about Birth’s box-office and awards chances as several activists and industry insiders vowed not to see the film.
If the events of the past month had not occurred, TIFF would be a natural next stop for Parker, 36, who was expected to be the main promoter of the film during its promo campaign (including a planned college campus tour) ahead of its Oct. 7 wide release. Instead, the question became whether the film would even remain in the TIFF lineup.
“We think Birth of a Nation tells an important story that’s too long been absent from American cinema,” TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey told THR of the festival’s decision to keep it on the schedule. “The debate we’ve witnessed is also an important one, and people will make their own decisions about seeing the film. The great thing about films, though, is that once seen, they belong to each viewer as much as they do to the filmmaker.”
Many awards insiders and publicity experts expected Parker to back out of doing press in Toronto (AFI recently postponed a screening of the film and instead hosted a conversation about campus sexual-assault issues). While Fox Searchlight has canceled several interviews at news outlets’ lounges in Toronto, citing time constraints, the distributor has booked Parker and his cast for a full day of TV interviews Sept. 10 and a news conference the following day.
Searchlight may be banking on the fact that TIFF audiences have a reputation for being friendly (there’s rarely booing, like in Cannes), and some insiders say an especially warm reception could put the film back on track. But several top publicists not involved with Birth who spoke to THR believe it will take more than strong applause for the spotlight to move away from Parker’s past, especially if he continues to do interviews on the subject.
“Before this happened, I think the film was a rousing celebration because everyone wanted to correct the past mistakes,” says one seasoned rep, referring to the furor about the lack of nonwhite Oscar acting nominees the past two years. “But now the film is tainted, and I’m not sure he can come back from this.”
It remains to be seen if Parker will participate in an on-stage Q&A session that traditionally follows TIFF screenings (Birth screens at 8 p.m. and 9 p.m. on Sept. 9). Even a single heckler would be disastrous for the film, given the international media and other tastemakers in attendance. No activist group has announced any planned protests of the film or Parker at TIFF. Even the Women’s Law Project — which represented Parker’s Penn State accuser in her complaint against how the university handled her harassment after reporting the alleged assault (resulting in a settlement of $17,500) — tells THR they would “not personally support a boycott” of Parker’s film.
“While we have compassion for sexual-assault survivors and advocates who choose to not see the film, we do not personally support a boycott of Birth of a Nation,” says executive director Carol E. Tracy. “We don’t believe that protesting a film that encourages dialogue about slavery and racial justice will result in a deeper analysis of sexual violence. To make progress, we need to explore both of these problems and the many ways they are intertwined — in history, in media and in the criminal justice system.”
One group waiting to see how the drama is received at TIFF is the Vancouver Film Festival, which runs Sept. 29 to Oct. 14. Parker is expected to attend to introduce his film, but executive director Jacqueline Dupuis tells THR the festival is holding off until after TIFF to determine how it will manage the audience in Vancouver.
“After we see what happens at Toronto, we’ll have more of an idea of what we might be dealing with,” says Dupuis. “For now, we just hope that audiences will come out and enjoy it and express their opinions and beliefs. And if they don’t enjoy it, we hope they’ll do the same.”
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