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How Nate Parker's legal past is clouding 'The Birth of a Nation'

Nate Parker directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in
Nate Parker directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in "The Birth of a Nation," but as he comes under increased scrutiny for a rape acquittal from 1999, his visibility could become an issue.
Alberto E. Rodriguez, Getty Images

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“The Birth of a Nation” is filmmaker Nate Parker’s answer to the racist D.W. Griffith movie of the same name from more than a century ago.

The upcoming film, which Parker directed, produced, co-wrote and stars in, focuses on Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831. Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights to “The Birth of a Nation” at this year’s Sundance Film Festival for a record-setting $17.5 million dollars.

Now, the film’s Oct. 7 scheduled release has been eclipsed by media reports about Parker’s arrest and trial for rape while he was a student at Penn State University in 1999. Parker was acquitted, but the alleged victim of the rape — a fellow student who claimed Parker and another man had sex with her while she was unconscious — later took her own life. Her sister says she never recovered from the incident. The other defendant, who would become Parker’s screenwriting partner, was convicted, but later freed on appeal.

Parker has posted a statement on Facebook that says, in part: “I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”

Rebecca Ford is a film reporter at The Hollywood Reporter, and she joined us to discuss how the rape charge and the news reports about the case are clouding the release of "The Birth of a Nation."

Interview Highlights:

What has Nate Parker said in the last couple of days?

He just released a long statement on Facebook, saying that he didn't know that the woman who accused him of rape had actually committed suicide and that he was very emotionally affected by that news. It was sort of an emotional explanation, but he maintains that he was innocent and that the sex was consensual.

We talked with Parker at Sundance, right after Fox Searchlight bought "The Birth of a Nation" for a record $17.5 million. Here's what he said then, when we asked him about why he ultimately went with Fox Searchlight when a lot of other people were bidding on the film:

I think what separated Fox Searchlight from the others, for me personally, was their desperation to get this film out to the global market, so there can be healing, and there can be real, sustainable change.

I think Nate Parker sees this movie, even if it's a period film, as having a lot of modern relevance. And part of the story about the marketing was that he was going to be touring the nation, talking to colleges, church groups, classes. How has any of that been affected by the news?

I think that's the biggest problem facing Fox Searchlight right now. They had planned to have Nate Parker be the face of this movie. He's very passionate about its message, and since February he's been attending a ton of events, picking up a few awards, and speaking at colleges. Now, the question is: Is it appropriate to bring him to colleges after all that's come out in the past few days?

It could result in a huge shift for what Fox Searchlight is actually going to do for this film. Like you said, they paid a massive amount of money for this movie and it's a wide release, which is not what they always do. They're known for these [acclaimed] films that they slowly release in theaters throughout the country, so they took a huge risk with this film and they were really depending on Nate to be the face of it. So we don't know for sure, but it sounds like there could be changes for their plans in the next couple months.

This makes me wonder about something which has happened in the past, for example with Jodie Foster, after John Hinckley Jr. attempted to assassinate President Reagan. [Hinckley was obsessed with the actress.] If you were interviewing Jodie Foster, you were told that you couldn't ask about that issue. Is it a possibility that Fox Searchlight will say, You can't ask Nate Parker about this? He's talking about a movie about emancipation and liberty, so that would be incredibly odd, wouldn't it?

Yeah,he keeps saying that he's never shied away from questions about this subject, so I can't really imagine the reps trying to do that these days, especially, as you say, with this topic. And there's a lot of violence in this film and there's a rape in the film, and it just seems unlikely that they'd be able to tell outlets they couldn't ask about this topic.

Nate Parker has said that he's never hidden this part of this past. Do you have any belief that Fox Searchlight knew about this in January when they bought the film for a record Sundance sale price?

He's said that there's always been a footnote on his Wikipedia page that said he was acquitted of a rape accusation, but that's really all it said. From what I know about how Sundance deals work, they happen overnight, like they're up until 6 a.m. bidding against a lot of other distributors to win the film, and it's such a crazed and competitive environment.

Everyone I've talked to says that you don't spend time doing background checks or Googling the creators or the people involved in films — that's never been a part of the process. So I feel like they didn't know to what degree this was [known] before they were bidding for the film. But maybe that will change in the future for distributors before they put down a huge amount of money next Sundance. At the time, I don't think it was something that would've come up.

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