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Tarak Ben Ammar and Mark Burg think Nate Parker deserves a second chance. The two producers bankrolling American Skin, Parker’s follow-up to his 2016 directorial debut, The Birth of a Nation, say they have zero reservations about working with the writer-director despite the controversy — a 1999 college rape trial at which he was acquitted — that nearly sank Parker’s career.
“We have to assume facts: One, he was acquitted and is innocent. Two, he’s a great film director and [American Skin] is a great movie,” says the Paris-based Ben Ammar, whose producer credits include 2007’s Hannibal Rising and whose company, Quinta Communications, distributed Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ in France.
Ben Ammar says he and Burg split the budget on Parker’s “under $5 million” film 50-50. (A third producer, Lukas Behnken, referred questions to Ben Ammar and Burg.) The film, which has no domestic distributor, tells the story of an Iraq War vet who seeks justice after his son is shot and killed by a police officer.
Burg, best known for producing the Saw franchise, believes the media narrative around Parker should be reframed. “If you look at it, in a racist world, how was a 19-year-old scholarship student, represented by a public defender who wanted nothing to do with the case, acquitted by [a jury] if they really thought he was guilty?” Burg says. “It’s only by the grace of God that Nate Parker didn’t get lynched [or] end up spending time in jail. Nobody wants to write that there was a woman who lied [about] what happened that night. With Nate Parker, the truth came out. And yet America still wants to say, ‘Well, that’s not good enough. You weren’t sorry.’ Well guess what. Somebody tries to throw my ass in jail for 20 years, I may not be sorry either.”
Plus, Burg adds, “everyone in America” deserves a second chance: “There are people on the streets that have murdered people. They do their time, they get out, and guess what — they deserve a second chance. Why is it that Hollywood doesn’t think Nate Parker deserves a second chance?”
Birth of a Nation debuted in January 2016 at the Sundance Film Festival, where the slave revolt drama was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. But the newfound attention on Parker put a spotlight on the rape case, which stemmed from an incident involving the accuser and two Penn State wrestlers at the time, Parker and his Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin, who had a co-story credit on the film. While Parker, who called the encounter “unambiguously consensual” in a Facebook post, was eventually acquitted, Celestin was convicted and sentenced to six months in jail. The conviction was later overturned on appeal based on the argument that Celestin had had ineffective representation.
The controversy intensified in August 2016 when it was revealed that the accuser had died by suicide in April of 2012. Parker added fuel to the fire when, in a series of high-profile TV interviews, he refused to apologize for the 1999 incident and displayed what many saw as a lack of sensitivity toward the death of the accuser. Asked by 60 Minutes’ Anderson Cooper if he felt remorse about this situation, Parker replied: “I don’t feel guilty.” The following day, Good Morning America co-host Robin Roberts asked Parker about his seeming lack of empathy, but Parker referred Roberts to comments he had made the previous evening. When Roberts persisted, Parker declared, “I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.”
Parker’s comments sparked further condemnation in Hollywood. In an email to The Hollywood Reporter following the interviews, Amy Ziering, a producer on the 2015 campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, wrote: “I had hoped that Parker’s discussion of the film and his past would address our culture’s toxic history of both racism and sexual/gender violence — and the ways these two issues importantly intersect. Unfortunately, he has put forward a lot of carefully constructed rhetoric, which at times rings hollow and falls short.”
Fox Searchlight pulled its planned awards campaign for Birth of a Nation and gave the film a limited release in October 2016. It grossed just $16.8 million worldwide and Parker has not commented publicly since.
Burg now acknowledges that Parker “should’ve been a little more apologetic,” citing the sensitivity around the deceased accuser. “I don’t think any parent should have to bury a child. So I feel bad for the parents. I feel bad for the girl, who clearly was imbalanced enough to commit suicide while in rehab. So clearly there was a lot of issues going on with this woman,” says Burg. “But no, Nate Parker was found innocent and that’s what I care about.”
Burg adds that the decision to self-finance American Skin had as much to do with market realities as with any controversy surrounding Parker.
“It’s no secret that movies with urban stories that take place with predominantly African American casts do very little business internationally,” says Burg. “You really have to count on getting your money back domestically. But we felt that this story was so compelling and needed to be told, that we needed to finance it ourselves. If we’ve got to worry about what other people are thinking or saying, wait for other people to do presales, this movie would never happen.”
That opinion was seconded by international distributors who spoke to THR about American Skin on the condition of anonymity considering the sensitivities surrounding the subject. Few saw the rape allegations against Parker as an issue in the film’s international release —”no one outside of North America heard about the scandal” one Dutch distributor tells THR —but many thought the film’s subject matter could limit its international appeal.
“Without having seen the movie, it feels like a very American look at racism and the issues there,” said a German buyer. “That could make it a hard sell outside the States.” The buyer, however, pointed to Spike Lee’s support of American Skin — Lee will present the movie in Venice — as a positive. “[Lee’s] BlacKkKlansman did really well internationally and if [global] audiences think American Skin is in the same vein, they might turn out for it,” he says.
One domestic buyer, also speaking to THR on the condition anonymity, says the film’s prospects for landing U.S. distribution are slim: “There’s been no attempt on [Parker’s] part to clean things up. I doubt anyone will buy this movie.”
Ben Ammar says, however, that several international distributors have already approached him, eager to screen American Skin.
Ammar is counting on American Skin rebooting Parker’s career and returning the director to employability, if not Hollywood’s inner circles. The producer has already signed on to work with Parker on another one of his projects, Hannibal the Carthaginian, which Ammar describes as a real-life African warrior epic in the spirit of Black Panther.
“We believe that overseas this film will hit the right emotion and get you to think, which is what Nate Parker wants to do,” he says, arguing that the message of the film — “that if people don’t sit together and talk about their issues … then we might not have a very violent world” — is universal.
But Melissa Silverstein, founder of the advocacy website Women and Hollywood, is blunt in her assessment of Ben Ammar and Blurg’s motivation for giving Parker a second chance. “There are men in Hollywood and across the global film industry who are waiting with bated breath for the #MeToo movement to let up so they can get back to business as usual,” she tells THR. “The culture is now debating who gets to tell the stories. It will be up to the buyers and the audiences as to whether they are ready or interested in seeing a story from Nate Parker. I know that I won’t be watching.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Aug. 21 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
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