In the beginning, there was Oprah.
Winfrey, along with her friend and CBS This Morning anchor Gayle King, was one of the first people to see Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation outside of a festival setting. The women were so enthusiastic that they sent the filmmaker a Feb. 1 Instagram video congratulating him. In August, when news reports began to focus on the 1999 rape charges involving Parker and his Birth of a Nation collaborator, Jean Celestin, Winfrey initially seemed ready to help. (Parker and Celestin were Penn State roommates at the time of the fateful encounter that led to the trial. Parker was acquitted; Celestin’s conviction was thrown out on appeal.)
Sources say Winfrey suggested Parker address the matter in an appearance with King on her CBS program. But Parker declined. He was angry that what he saw as a consensual, youthful sexual experimentation gone awry had become an issue years later despite his acquittal, and that it was happening just when his Nat Turner passion project was not only finished but positioned as a major Oscar contender.
Since then, Winfrey has remained mum regarding Parker, seemingly depriving the filmmaker of an important voice that might have helped him move past persistent questions that seem to be overshadowing his movie and potentially undermining his career. And Fox Searchlight, which paid a record $ 17.5 million for the film and hired consultants in an effort to help Parker get on message, is likely shifting its attention this awards season to Jackie, starring Natalie Portman as the former first lady.
In the days leading up to his film’s opening, Parker did interviews on 60 Minutes and Good Morning America. In neither appearance was he willing or able to convey a clear and effective message of regret for long-ago mistakes or concern for his accuser, who committed suicide in 2012.
Asked by GMA co-host Robin Roberts about his seeming lack of empathy, Parker sidestepped the question, referring Roberts to comments he had made the previous evening on 60 Minutes (another network’s show). When Roberts persisted, Parker declared, “I was falsely accused, I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.” Unsurprisingly, that refusal to apologize — which to Parker is said to be a matter of staying true to himself — has been the focus of subsequent media reports during the key weeklong corridor leading up to today’s release of the film in 2,100 theaters.
To Amy Ziering, a producer on the 2015 campus-rape documentary The Hunting Ground, Parker has failed to address critical issues. “I had hoped that Parker’s discussion of the film and his past would address our culture’s toxic history of both racism and sexual/gender violence — and the ways these two issues importantly intersect,” she says in an email to THR. “Unfortunately, he has put forward a lot of carefully constructed rhetoric, which at times rings hollow and falls short.”
Director Judd Apatow also seems to point toward the road not traveled. “He has an opportunity to teach young men about the meaning of consent,” Apatow wrote on Twitter on Oct. 5. “He could do something that would help so many people.”
It’s not hard to imagine executives at Fox Searchlight throwing up their hands as they watched these interviews unfold. The studio had invested in public-relations experts from Washington, D.C.-based Glover Park Consulting to give Parker media training and hired former NFL pro Don McPherson, who frequently speaks on issues of sexual violence, to help Parker find a way to send the right message. While sources say Parker seemed at times to understand the need to emphasize his sorrow about the devastating impact of the 1999 encounter on the woman at the center of the charges, sources say when the cameras rolled he reverted to his original position. “They gave him talking points and he just didn’t execute,” says one industry veteran with knowledge of events.
Matters didn’t improve the day after the GMA appearance, when the filmmaker spoke to a sympathetic Steve Harvey. Parker refused a request to recount his side of the story, choosing instead to challenge the media. “What are these journalists trying to do?” he asked. “Do they care about anyone involved?” What followed were jumbled remarks in which Parker touched on his faith before declaring that the issue of violence against women was unfamiliar to him — a problem for which he again blamed the media. “You watch the Steve Harvey thing — you can’t find a more softball situation,” says a source with ties to Parker’s project. “And [Parker] is just simmering.”
Sources say Parker, who fought a long battle to bring Birth of a Nation into existence, had been lulled by a favorable reception for the film at the Toronto Film Festival and wasn’t expecting another round of critical questioning as the film opened in theaters nationwide.
With Birth tracking for a soft $ 10 million or so opening weekend, the question has become: Can Parker recover?
Some believe so, if he does a stint in “movie jail” and takes steps to rebuild, possibly by laying low for a while, possibly by turning to television. “He will not have an easy time,” says a veteran producer. “He’s clearly a vital filmmaking voice. It’s maddening to watch it go so wrong. No one is hiring him at the moment. If they’re going to pay $ 17.5 million, you’ve got to do everything right.”
But a veteran studio executive notes that Mel Gibson engaged in egregious misconduct but has continued to direct. Others say that unlike Gibson — or Roman Polanski or Woody Allen, both accused of sexual assault (Polanski pled guilty to unlawful sexual intercourse) — Parker is just beginning his directing career and has not built up an acclaimed body of work that might encourage some to say they are willing to separate the artist from the art.
Others say they see Parker facing a steep challenge. His next project is with Legendary Pictures, but it seems like a fair bet it will never go forward. Says an executive at another film company, “His inability to act like he cared that people invested a whole lot of money in him — sorry. You go into the ‘life is too short’ category.” Noting that the first half of the New York Times review of Birth of a Nation is taken up with the controversy, this person adds, “No matter what Nate Parker makes, … this will always be the first paragraph.”