Nate Parker is plunging ahead with plans to be the public face of “The Birth of a Nation” despite the furor surrounding rape accusations that were made against the actor, writer, and director when he was a student at Penn State University.
He will be on hand at the film’s Toronto Film Festival premiere next month, where he will participate in a scheduled media junket.
Parker and Fox Searchlight, the boutique label behind the film, have no plans to hide the filmmaker from the press. He will still go ahead with a scheduled promotional roadshow, a source close to the studio said — one that will take him to major cities such as Chicago, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Boston and San Francisco.
Although there has been speculation that the controversy surrounding news of the 2001 rape trial would imperil “The Birth of a Nation’s” Oscar chances, Fox Searchlight management considers that a secondary concern, sources say. The company, which is opening the movie wide on Oct. 7, as planned, is more interested in the film being a commercial success than it is with capturing awards. Fox spent a whopping $17.5 million to acquire the picture at Sundance and is prepared to make a “big media spend,” according to a source familiar with the plans.
A Toronto Film Festival official says Parker’s film will remain on the schedule for the festival, which is often a proving ground for movies hoping to make noise during awards season. “TIFF is proud to help bring ‘The Birth of a Nation’ and the important story it tells to audiences,” said a spokesperson, in a statement. “We will present the film as planned.”
Parker stuck to his schedule in the immediate aftermath of news breaking about the 1999 rape case, in which he was acquitted. He received a Vanguard Award Thursday night from the Sundance Institute, which had supported the making of “Birth of a Nation” through its Feature Film Program. The organization also announced the creation of a Sundance Institute/Birth of a Nation Fellowship, to be awarded to young filmmakers. Over the weekend, he and Aja Naomi King (who plays Turner’s wife in the film) had a Q&A with Spike Lee at the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival, and separately, Fox Searchlight had a private screening of his movie.
As a student at Penn State, Parker and his friend, Jean Celestin, 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, who co-wrote “The Birth of a Nation,” 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.
That part of Parker’s history has been on his Wikipedia page and on several websites, though it was not widely known throughout the industry. This week, however, news broke that Parker and Celestin’s accuser committed suicide in 2012.
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.”
Even though Fox Searchlight is moving forward with its publicity plans, it is getting help from an outside crisis P.R. firm that is routinely enlisted by its parent company, 21st Century Fox.
After “The Birth of a Nation” sold for a record amount at Sundance, Parker lined up a series of projects. He was slated to adapt “Carry On,” a true life story of disabled wrestlers for Walden Media, and he also sold an original feature film idea to Legendary Pictures. A spokeswoman for Walden declined to comment on whether or not the company still planned to move forward with the project. A spokesman for Legendary confirmed that Parker had a project set up at the company, but declined to offer additional comment.