Oscar voters ponder Nate Parker and 'Birth of a Nation': 'I would not go to the movie'

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Inside Birth of a Nation Director Nate Parker's 1999 Rape Trial

For two years, the film Academy has been hit with fiery criticism over its all-white Oscar acting nominees. So when Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation premiered to cheers at the Sundance Film Festival in January and sold for a record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, it looked like a savior Academy voters could embrace, in part to rectify past wrongs.

Birth of a Nation seemingly had everything going for it. The film could claim historical importance — it tells the story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831. It had the imprimatur of the Sundance Institute, where it had been developed. Parker himself had the kind of personal story that often resonates with Oscar voters, since he'd temporarily set aside a promising acting career to pursue his passion project, which marks his directorial debut. And, in the months since its debut, as the Black Lives Matter movement has gained momentum, Birth, rather than just revisiting the past, looked as if it could become an important part of the national conversation about how black men are treated in America.

But now the film is seen as tainted after details resurfaced from a 2001 rape trial in which Parker, now 36, was acquitted but accused of reprehensible acts (his friend Jean Celestin, who shares a story credit on Birth, was found guilty, but the conviction was overturned), and it was revealed Aug. 16 that Parker's alleged victim killed herself in 2012. "Personally, I find it really hard to separate the man from the film when he wrote, directed and starred in it," says Marcia Nasatir, an Academy member in the executives branch. "Do I want to see a movie from someone who has committed an assault against a woman and who I do not think recognizes his guilt? Right now, based on what I've read, I would not go to the movie."

Photos of Nate Parker, spearhead of 'Birth of a Nation:'

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Nate Parker out and about
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Nate Parker out and about
Nate Parker during AFI Film Fest 2005 - 'Dirty' Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals in Los Angeles, California, United States. (Photo by M. Phillips/WireImage)
Nate Parker during 'Beerfest' Los Angeles Premiere - Arrivals at Grauman's Chinese in Hollywood, California, United States. (Photo by J.Sciulli/WireImage)
SANTA MONICA, CA - NOVEMBER 02: Jurnee Smollett and Nate Parker from 'The Great Debaters' attend the Weinstein Company AFM party at Akwa on November 2, 2007 in Santa Monica, California. (Photo by Matthew Simmons/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - DECEMBER 11: (L-R) Actress Jurnee Smollett, producer Oprah Winfrey, and actor Nate Parker arrive at the MGM premiere of 'The Great Debaters' held at the Arclight Cinerama Dome on December 11, 2007 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
Nate Parker is an actor who appears in The Great Debaters, as one of three African American members on the winning 1930sÂera Wiley College debate team. Denzel Washington directs and stars in the film. He was photographed at The Four Seasons Hotel in Beverly Hills on December 8, 2008. (Photo by Michael Robinson Chavez/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)
Nate Parker at the premiere of The Great Debaters at the Arclight Theater on December 11, 2007 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: Actor Nate Parker from the film 'The Secret Life Of Bees', poses for a portrait during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival at The Sutton Place Hotel on September 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: (L-R) Actors Sophie Okonedo, Alicia Keys, Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, actors Dakota Fanning, Tristan Wilds, Jennifer Hudson, producer Lauren Shuler Donner and actor Nate Parker from the film 'The Secret Life Of Bees', pose for a portrait during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival at The Sutton Place Hotel on September 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Matt Carr/Getty Images)
Actor Nate Parker speaks at the 'The Secret Life of Bees' press conference during the 2008 Toronto International Film Festival held at the Sutton Place Hotel on September 6, 2008 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Leonard Adam/WireImage)
HOLLYWOOD - NOVEMBER 14: Actor Nate Parker attends the annual Oxfam party at the Esquire House on November 14, 2008 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 12: Actor Nate Parker arrives at the 40th NAACP Image Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on February 12, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images for NAACP)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 06: Actor Nate Parker and Tristan Wilds arrive at the premiere of 'The Secret Life Of Bees' held at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences on October 6, 2008 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Todd Williamson/WireImage)
Actor Nate Parker arrives at the 40th NAACP Image Awards held at the Shrine Auditorium on February 12, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jeff Kravitz/FilmMagic)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 17: Actor Nate Parker (L) and wife Sarah Parker attend the G-Star Fall 2009 Fashion Show at the Hammerstein Ballroom on February 17, 2009 in New York City. (Photo by Jamie McCarthy/WireImage for G-Star)
NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 16: Actor Nate Parker attends the G-Star Raw Fall/Winter 2010 fashion show at Hammerstein Ballroom on February 16, 2010 in New York City. (Photo by Scott Wintrow/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - FEBRUARY 12: Actor Nate Parker walks the red carpet at the G-Star Raw Fall 2011 fashion show during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 12, 2011 in New York City. (Photo by Gary Miller/FilmMagic)
(L-R) Nate Parker and Tyson Beckford attend the NY RAW Special Edition Autumn/Winter 2011 Collection presented by G-Star RAW during Mercedes-Benz Fashion Week at The Theatre at Lincoln Center on February 12, 2011 in New York City.
HOLLYWOOD, CA - DECEMBER 13: Nate Parker appears on the red carper for the 4th Annual Manifest Your Destiny Toy Driv at Drai's Hollywood on December 13, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - JANUARY 10: (L-R) Andre Royo, Tristan Wilds, and Nate Parker attend the 'Red Tails' premiere at the Ziegfeld Theater on January 10, 2012 in New York City. (Photo by Johnny Nunez/WireImage)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 20: Actor Nate Parker attends the 'Aint Them Bodies Saints' premiere at Eccles Center Theatre during the 2013 Sundance Film Festival on January 20, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by George Pimentel/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 20: Nate Parker attends the TR Suites Daytime Lounge - Day 3 on January 20, 2013 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Michael N. Todaro/WireImage)
WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 06: (L to R) Terrance Brown, Janelle Monae, Kellindo Parker and Nate Wonder pose for a photo backstage at the 2013 National Christmas Tree Lighting Ceremony in President's Park on December 6, 2013 in Washington, DC. (Photo by Paul Morigi/WireImage)
LOS ANGELES, CA - NOVEMBER 12: Actor Nate Parker attends the GQ Men Of The Year Party at The Ebell Club of Los Angeles on November 12, 2013 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
WESTWOOD, CA - FEBRUARY 24: Actor Nate Parker attends the premiere of Universal Pictures and Studiocanal's 'Non-Stop' at Regency Village Theatre on February 24, 2014 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Jason Merritt/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - AUGUST 06: Actor Nate Parker arrives at the premiere of 'About Alex' at the Arclight Theatre on August 6, 2014 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images)
PALOS VERDES ESTATES, CA - AUGUST 29: Actor Nate Parker attends the 1st Annual Swing For Education Golf Classic Benefiting Asomugha College Tour For Scholars at Trump National Golf Course on August 29, 2014 in Palos Verdes Estates, California. (Photo by Earl Gibson III/WireImage)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: Actor Nate Parker of 'Beyond the Lights' poses for a portrait during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: Actors Nate Parker and Gugu Mbatha-Raw attend the 'Beyond The Lights' Premiere during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival at The Elgin on September 6, 2014 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Leonard Adam/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 06: (EDITORS NOTE: This image was processed using digital filters) Director Gina Prince-Bythewood, producer Amar'e Stoudemire, actors Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Nate Parker of 'Beyond the Lights' poses for a portrait during the 2014 Toronto International Film Festival on September 6, 2014 in Toronto, Ontario. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)
NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 13: Actor Nate Parker attends the 'Beyond The Lights' New York Premiere at Regal Union Square on November 13, 2014 in New York City. (Photo by Jim Spellman/WireImage)
BURBANK, CA - JANUARY 29: Actor Nate Parker attends Saudi Producer Mohammed Al Turki guest lectures at New York Film Academy on January 29, 2015 in Burbank, California. (Photo by Michael Bezjian/WireImage)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 21: Nate Parker is seen at the Salt Lake City International Airport on January 21, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by gotpap/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 22: Nate Parker attends the Stella Artois Kick-off Party in the Stella Artois Filmmaker Lounge during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 22, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Rick Kern/Getty Images for Stella Artois)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Writer/director/producer Nate Parker in The IMDb Studio In Park City, Utah: Day Four - on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Angela Weiss/Getty Images for IMDb)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 23: Actor Nate Parker attends the Creative Coalition Spotlight Initiative Awards Gala Dinner at Cisero's Bar on January 23, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 24: (EDITORS NOTE: Image has been digitally converted to black and white.) An alternative view of Nate Parker at the SAG Indie Brunch for Directors at Cafe Terigo on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Nate Parker attends the SAG Indie Brunch for Directors at Cafe Terigo on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Fred Hayes/Getty Images)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Director/actor/producer Nate Parker attends the 'The Birth Of A Nation' Premiere during the 2016 Sundance Film Festival at Eccles Center Theatre on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Nicholas Hunt/Getty Images for Sundance Film Festival)
PARK CITY, UT - JANUARY 25: Actors Gabrielle Union (L) and Nate Parker from the film 'The Birth of a Nation' pose for a portrait during the Getty Images Portrait Studio hosted by Eddie Bauer at Village at The Lift on January 25, 2016 in Park City, Utah. (Photo by Maarten de Boer/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Actor Nate Parker attends the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images)
PASADENA, CA - FEBRUARY 05: Actor Nate Parker attends the 47th NAACP Image Awards at Pasadena Civic Auditorium on February 5, 2016 in Pasadena, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Director Nate Parker speaks onstage at the 68th Annual Directors Guild Of America Awards at the Hyatt Regency Century Plaza on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Alberto E. Rodriguez/Getty Images for DGA)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Actor Nate Parker attended the 2016 Pan African Film And Arts Festival - A Conversation With Nate Parker at Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - FEBRUARY 06: Actor Nate Parker attended the 2016 Pan African Film And Arts Festival - A Conversation With Nate Parker at Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 on February 6, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Leon Bennett/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 14: Director Nate Parker, recipient of the Breakthrough Director of the Year Award, attends the CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards brought to you by the Coca-Cola Company at Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 14, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by C Flanigan/Getty Images)
LAS VEGAS, NV - APRIL 14: Director Nate Parker (L), recipient of the Breakthrough Director of the Year Award, and actress Aja Naomi King attend the CinemaCon Big Screen Achievement Awards brought to you by the Coca-Cola Company at Omnia Nightclub at Caesars Palace during CinemaCon, the official convention of the National Association of Theatre Owners, on April 14, 2016 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by C Flanigan/Getty Images)
LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 26: Actor Nate Parker attends the 2016 BET Awards at Microsoft Theater on June 26, 2016 in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Jason LaVeris/FilmMagic)
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - AUGUST 04: Nate Parker arrives at the Hollywood Foreign Press Association's Grants Banquet at the Beverly Wilshire Four Seasons Hotel on August 4, 2016 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Steve Granitz/WireImage)
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The question is whether other Academy members will respond similarly. Among those surveyed, few had previously known of Parker and most are first learning about him via the media coverage of the resurfaced rape claims. Most have not yet seen the film, which has screened only at select festivals and private tastemaker events since Sundance.

Fox Searchlight maintains it is charging ahead with an Oct. 7 wide release plan and a roll-out that will include a high-profile screening at the Toronto Film Festival and a "road show" with Parker visiting college campuses. A planned screening and Q&A with Parker on Friday at the American Film Institute was canceled late Tuesday, and others could follow.

The backlash means rival campaigns for films dealing with black subject matter likely will press their cases even harder. And unlike past seasons, this year there are a half-dozen films that, at least on paper, deserve serious consideration.

Most prominent among them are Loving (Nov. 4), writer-director Jeff Nichols' look at the landmark 1967 Supreme Court case Loving v. Virginia, which struck down laws prohibiting interracial marriage; Denzel Washington's Fences (Dec. 25), his adaptation of August Wilson's Pulitzer Prize-winning play about a black family in 1950s Pittsburgh; and Theodore Melfi'sHidden Figures (Jan. 13, following an Oscar-qualifying run), starring Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer as real-life math whizzes who worked for NASA during the 1960s. Other contenders: Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o stars as the mother of a young Ugandan chess phenom in Mira Nair'sQueen of Katwe (Sept. 23); Barry Jenkins' Moonlight (Oct. 21), about a young man coming to terms with his sexuality; Southside With You (Aug. 26), in which Tika Sumpter and Parker Sawyers play Michelle and Barack Obama on their first date; and Will Smith, who plays a man trying to rebuild his life in December's Collateral Beauty.

Read more: 'Hunting Ground' Producer on Nate Parker and the Past: The Cost of Giving Up the Ghost (Guest Column)

In an effort to avoid another #OscarsSoWhite flap, Academy PR consultants and the awards media likely will shine a spotlight on such movies, but the campaigns also risk pitting "black" films against one another. Even before Parker's rape case re-emerged, strategists quietly were laying the groundwork to position their movies as more palatable alternatives to the violent, R-rated Birth.

Despite the welcome crop of black movies that will jostle for attention, there's a question whether each will be judged on its own merits. The risk is that because of all the focus on race, the films will be forced to contend with an unspoken quota system, with each competing to fill a limited number of slots. "I'm already prepared for the backlash of any film that centers on marginalized communities being thought of as an affirmative action or a quota pic," says April Reign, the activist who coined #OscarsSoWhite.

In an ideal world, each of these films would be judged separately from one another and their backstories. Mitchell Block, an Oscar voter in the documentary branch, who serves on an Academy committee with Parker, says, "I understand it's an extraordinary movie and I'm looking forward to seeing it. The court found Parker not guilty, and they set aside the Celestin conviction, but that's almost beside the point. I think you have to separate the work from the person. Hollywood continues to embrace the work of Woody Allen and Roman Polanski."

But that's not always the way the awards game is played. Voters also pass judgment on filmmakers, whose personal stories become part of the awards calculus as voters decide whom to reward and whom to spurn. And because there will be no separating Parker from Birth of a Nation, no matter what strategy Searchlight ultimately employs, the film now has to be considered very problematic. Says Nasatir: "This is going to set off a thing in this town the likes of which we've never seen."

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Will You Give Birth a Chance?
Two longtime Oscar voters offer opposing views on a tainted contender

"He wasn't found guilty, and even if he was, we're not voting for the man — we're voting for his film. I've never met a Hollywood star who hasn't had some sensational thing said about him — and many of them won Academy Awards. In Hollywood, people love to see other people fail, but we should judge films on their merits. From what I hear, the picture's really good. I think it's a shame people have to bring things like this up to try to hurt it." — Tab Hunter (Damn Yankees), actors branch

"I've been following the case. I read the transcripts and the comments of the girl who died. When I was having my hair done last week, even my hairdresser was livid. Other people haven't heard about it yet, but it's going to unfold in a very big way. They need a Ray Donovan guy in there to fix this because there's so much money invested in this movie. I will probably see it because I try to see everything. But I have to admit, I'm going to go in with a very biased attitude toward this guy because I think what he and the co-writer did to this girl was terrible — especially how they harassed her after she reported their behavior. They got off, but they are not innocent. Parker stands behind his wife and his five daughters, but that doesn't wash with me. The only thing that would make this better for me would be for him to say, 'I'm gonna serve my six months in jail.' Otherwise, it will be very hard for me to vote for this movie. What is the life of a woman worth?" — Rutanya Alda (Mommie Dearest), actors branch

A version of this story first appeared in the Sept. 9 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

Read more: Al Sharpton Backs Nate Parker, Takes Aim at Hollywood and Right-Wing Media

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