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The Birth of a Nation, Nate Parker‘s slave rebellion movie which Fox Searchlight acquired for a record $17.5 million at Sundance but which has since been hurt by revelations about a rape charge Parker faced 17 years ago, finally screened for the Academy on Sunday afternoon.
Academy members tell The Hollywood Reporter that the Academy’s Samuel Goldwyn Theatre, which can seat up to 1,010, was only about half full, and since most Academy members bring a guest, that means as few as 250 or so of the organization’s roughly 7,000 voters may have been on hand. According to several audience members who attended, only a few dozen were people of color, despite the Academy’s recent push to increase its membership’s diversity, and none were household names. (“Prominent people don’t come to these screenings,” said one member who was there, “apart from occasional appearances by Carl Reiner or Paula Prentiss and Dick Benjamin.”)
A lone protestor stood on the curb outside of the Academy’s Beverly Hills headquarters as members arrived for the 3 p.m. screening, holding a sign that read, “NO MORE OSCARS FOR RAPISTS.
RAPE.” An Academy member tells THR, “He wasn’t saying anything, he just had his little sign, standing on the sidewalk. There was no ruckus, no noise, but he was there. I’ve never seen that before in decades of belonging to the Academy.”
The film’s end credits were greeted with what one member described as “warm and very appreciative applause,” and “each time Nate Parker’s name came on the screen it got applause.” When the credits finished rolling, radio host John Horn, chosen by the Academy to moderate a post-screening Q&A, introduced Parker, as well as the film’s supporting actress Penelope Ann Miller and its composer Henry Jackman, for a 25-minute interview. As is customary, no questions were solicited from members.
“Some people left before the Q&A started,” an Academy member noted, “but that always happens. I don’t think they were shunning Parker or anything.” Indeed, they may have have been rushing home to watch the second presidential debate.
Horn didn’t raise the subject of the controversy surrounding Parker. An Academy member tells THR, “There was no reference at all to any of the controversy, and Parker looked very relaxed. There was no 500-pound elephant in the room. It was just the usual love-fest where everybody talks about how hard they worked and how much they love each other, so it wasn’t that edifying, to be honest.” He added, “Miller and Jackman spoke a lot, which was kind of unsatisfying because you’d really like to hear Nate Parker talk.”
Despite the widespread media attention accorded Parker in recent weeks, much of it unfavorable, Academy members who attended the screening seemed able to separate their reservations about Parker from their feelings about the film. “I thought it was brilliant,” said one who went in well-aware of the controversy. “A little bit of Spartacus by way of The Last Temptation of Christ with a smidgeon of Giant thrown in. If you judge a film by the visceral reaction that it elicits from the audience, then you have to say this film was 100 percent successful — it really gets you going. It was fabulous, important and powerful. I can see why it must have been electrifying at Sundance. Eight months later, we have a lot more information and expectation, which makes it harder for the film to get the same response — but ultimately it does. The last third of it really is just terrific.”
In addition, multiple female Academy members who previously told THR that they would not see the film because of the Parker controversy said on Sunday that they had reconsidered at the urging of Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs. Meanwhile, Boone Isaacs and Academy CEO Dawn Hudson were said to be out of the country attending a reception for newly invited Academy members in London.
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