Nate Parker spent the first half of the year as Hollywood’s golden boy as director, producer, writer and star of “The Birth of a Nation.” Fox Searchlight acquired his film after it wowed at the Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million. Parker was lauded for putting his career on hold to ensure its fruition. He was invited to join the academy in June, as were newly minted Oscar winners Brie Larson (“Room), Mark Rylance (“Bridge of Spies”) and Alicia Vikander (“The Danish Girl”).
But since then, his dedication in bringing the 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner to screen has been overshadowed by a renewed interest in the rape charges that were brought against Parker and his “The Birth of a Nation” co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin while they were students at Pennsylvania State University in 1999; their female accuser committed suicide in 2012.
The film rates just 69 on Metacritic, lower than any of the 25 Best Picture nominees from the last three years. Individual critics are unlikely to admit that they are susceptible to groupthink, but the film had a healthy 77 before the controversy erupted. That put it one point above last year’s “The Revenant,” which won the Oscars for Best Director (Alejandro G. Iñárritu), Actor (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Cinematography (Emmanuel Lubezki), as well as both the BAFTA and Golden Globe for Best Picture. While only 10% of the reviews published before the controversy broke had a score below 70, over half have since.
The controversy is also hampering its box office performance. One of two new releases that opened in over 3000 theaters on Columbus Day weekend, “The Birth of a Nation” made $7 million while “The Girl on the Train” took in $25 million. While many may be avoiding “The Birth of a Nation” on principle, the film lives up to its reputation as a crowd-pleaser among those who see it, earning an A grade in exit polls conducted by CinemaScore; “The Girl on the Train” is averaging a B-.
The decline has been demonstrated in Gold Derby predictions. When the trailer came out in April, our senior editor Marcus Dixon asked, “Is the 2017 Oscar race already over?” Even after the rape charges resurfaced in mid-August, “The Birth of the Nation” charted in fifth-place among our experts predicting Best Picture with odds of 5/1. But as of this writing, it sits in ninth with odds of 25/1.
However, “The Birth of a Nation” yielded a warm response at its Vancouver International Film Festival premiere on October 1. This marked the film’s third festival, following Sundance in January and Toronto in September. Without reference to the controversy, an impassioned Parker received applause, laughter and no heckling as he introduced the film (watch above). He quoted Albert Einstein, Martin Luther King Jr. and Nina Simone while recounting how he spent eight years working on getting the film made.
And Parker paid tribute to fellow producer Aaron L. Gilbert, the Vancouverite whose independent production company Bron Studios was the film’s biggest financier. “To have a man that is not even from America — that doesn’t even live on that soil — that could give such a commitment to tell a story about an injury in America, because he saw the value of it to the world, meant everything to me.” Gilbert also spoke on stage immediately before the warmly-received VIFF premiere. “The story took place two hundred years ago, but it still speaks to our time right now and what’s happening in the world around us.”
Be sure to make your Oscar predictions. How do you think “The Birth of a Nation” will do with academy voters? Weigh in now with your picks so that Hollywood insiders can see how this film is faring in our Oscar odds. You can keep changing your predictions right up until just before nominations are announced on January 24 at 5:00 am PT/8:00 am ET. And join in the fierce debate over “The Birth of a Nation” taking place right now with Hollywood insiders in our forums.