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AFI Cancels ‘Birth of a Nation’ Screening, Nate Parker Q&A

The American Film Institute has canceled its Friday screening of “Birth of a Nation,” which was to be followed by a Q&A with filmmaker and star Nate Parker, whose 1999 rape case has put the filmmaker and distributor Fox Searchlight on the defensive this past week.

AFI dean Jan Schuette made the announcement to students late Tuesday. The AFI screening would have been Parker’s first public event since the story about the rape case became widely known earlier this month.

“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 said. “Next week, we will be scheduling a special moderated discussion so we may explore these issues together as artists and audience.”

Fox will hold a different AFI screening of “Birth” later this year. The studio has vowed to continue its theatrical release and publicity tour for the Nat Turner biopic, which opens Oct. 7, despite the recent headlines involving Parker.

In 1999, Parker and his friend, Jean Celestin, who is credited as a writer on “Birth of a Nation,” were charged with raping an 18-year old, who claimed she was unconscious after drinking heavily. Both men said the sex was consensual. Parker was acquitted of the rape charges in 2001, but Celestin was found guilty of sexual assault. He appealed the verdict and was granted a new trial in 2005, but the case never made it back to court after the woman declined to testify again.

Last week, Variety broke the news that the unidentified victim killed herself in 2012 after swallowing nearly 200 sleeping pills.

In a Facebook post, Parker said he was “devastated” by the news of her death, while maintaining his innocence.

“I can’t help but think of all the implications this has for her family,” he wrote. “I cannot, nor do I want to, ignore the pain she endured during and following our trial.”

AFI will instead hold a screening of Paramount’s “Jack Reacher: Never Go Back,” directed by Edward Zwick, on Friday as part of its “Opening Day,” a special screening for second-year fellows that occurs at the end of the first week of the new semester.

Zwick, a member of the AFI Board of Directors, is also an executive producer on “The Birth of a Nation,” the story of Nat Turner’s failed 1831 slave rebellion. Schuett said that Fox has agreed to hold a screening of the film at a yet-to-be announced date.

“Fox has agreed to host a screening of the film for us later in the year, and I’m happy to announce here that we are going to double down on Ed Zwick’s talent and generosity — and the Second Year Opening Day will also be ‘Jack Reacher: Never Go Back’ — and he and Marshall Herskovitz will return to discuss the film and meet you,” Schuett said.

Herskovitz is Zwick’s longtime producing partner. Zwick, Herskovitz and Richard Wenk wrote the screenplay for the sequel.

Schuett has been dealing with the fallout from dismissals among the AFI faculty. The faculty union called on the administration Tuesday to fire Schuett.

Fox Searchlight bought “The Birth of a Nation” for a record-breaking $17.5 million following its premiere in January at the  Sundance Film Festival. Parker produced, directed from his own script — on which he shares story credit with Celestin — along with starring as Nat Turner.

Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union also star in “The Birth of a Nation,” which won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition at Sundance.

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