Is Nate Parker back?
That question figures to be one of the prominent storylines of the Venice Film Festival after the fest announced Wednesday that it would screen “American Skin,” Parker’s first project since his debut feature, “The Birth of a Nation.” That film tanked at the box office three years ago amid renewed scrutiny of a 1999 case in which Parker was charged with rape and ultimately acquitted.
His sophomore feature was financed by Mark Burg, best known for the “Saw” franchise, and Tarak Ben Ammar, the Tunisian producer who is himself no stranger to controversy. In 2004, Ben Ammar distributed Mel Gibson’s “Passion of the Christ” in France, defying calls for a boycott over the film’s alleged anti-Semitism. Ben Ammar was also an investor and board member of the Weinstein Co., and was deeply engaged in the tumult that led to the company’s 2018 bankruptcy.
“American Skin” deals with explosive themes. Parker stars as a Marine veteran janitor whose son is killed by the police. Seeking justice, Parker’s character takes a police precinct hostage and holds a mock trial, with inmates serving as the jury. The film was shot in March and April in Los Angeles, with cooperation from the police. Sources close to the project say the film evokes a “12 Angry Men” vibe, and while it is politically charged, it is not “anti-cop.”
The budget — about $4.5 million — is a step down from “Birth,” which cost $8.5 million to produce and which famously sold to Fox Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million. For that film, a recounting of the 1831 Nat Turner slave revolt, Parker spent years courting investors, including NBA stars Michael Finley and Tony Parker, who signed up.
“American Skin” was submitted relatively late in the game to the Venice Film Festival and slotted in its Sconfini section, a grab bag of arthouse and genre films that screen out of competition.
The festival is already under fire for welcoming Roman Polanski’s latest film, “An Officer and a Spy,” which dramatizes the Dreyfus affair, a notorious case of anti-Semitism in France. The coincidence of inviting two directors who both faced rape allegations and who have made films about societal prejudice and injustice is striking. Polanski pleaded guilty to statutory rape in 1978, but fled the country before sentencing. Parker was acquitted in 2001 of raping a fellow Penn State student. The student alleged in a lawsuit that he and his co-defendant had harassed her and tried to intimidate her after she reported the incident. She later died by suicide.
In the U.S., both directors have faced severe professional consequences. The Parker controversy came as a sort of foreshock of the #MeToo movement, as his defensive response to the past allegations effectively killed the film’s box office and awards chances. Polanski, who has long lived in exile in France, was expelled from the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in the wake of the #MeToo controversy.
But the Venice festival has taken a much more relaxed approach to the issue. Last month, festival director Alberto Barbera defended Polanski as an artist who deserves to have his films in competition.
The backers of “American Skin” are hoping it receives a warm reception from critics and the festival audience. The film does not have distribution, but the hope is that it will be released — either theatrically or on a streaming platform — sometime later in the fall.
Melissa Silverstein, the founder of Women and Hollywood, said the festival’s decision sends a terrible message to survivors of sexual assault.
“Why do we set these festivals up on a pedestal if they just continue to make these horrific decisions?” she said, adding of Parker: “Clearly people are giving this man money to tell his stories when there are many people who can’t raise any money for their stories.”
Parker has his defenders. Spike Lee, who cast Parker in a small role in his 2012 film “Red Hook Summer,” will present “American Skin” at Venice and do a Q&A with Parker after the screening. Lee issued a statement Wednesday praising the film as “a brave tour de force.” The producers have also screened the film for other African-American directors and industry figures, and hope to garner broad support for it.
Parker will no doubt again have to face questions about the rape case. Though Parker was found not guilty, he was unprepared when new details of the case emerged in 2016 — including the accuser’s suicide. His supporters believe that Parker’s tone-deaf response played as much of a role in fanning the controversy as the underlying facts of the case, and hope he will be better prepared this time around.
Nick Vivarelli contributed to this report.