Until mid-August, The Birth of a Nation appeared primed to win the 89th Academy Award for Best Picture. Widely acclaimed at the Sundance Film Festival in January, it won the Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic, as well as the Audience Award. Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased its distribution rights for a record-breaking $17.5 million. But two months ago, a 17-year-old incident gained traction in the media and threatened the film’s theatrical release altogether.
In 2001, a jury acquitted Nate Parker — the director, co-writer, and star of Birth of a Nation — of four counts of rape and sexual assault. Charged with similar crimes, his roommate (Jean Celestin, who received a story credit on the film) was found guilty; the Pennsylvania Superior Court eventually overturned those charges. Their accuser suffered through years of PTSD-related depression and took her life in 2012. As is the case for any story that lacks hard evidence, further conclusions than this are just speculation. It seems the only person who knows the truth is Nate Parker.
Regardless, the film premiered wide on 7 October. Despite the negative press it carried since the summer, the film has already made back its $8.5 million production budget, raking in just over $12 million through its first two weekends. Only time will tell whether it makes back the hefty price paid to distribute and promote the movie. For comparison’s sake, two recent films preceded by similar acclaim that featured black male leads and black directors — 12 Years a Slave and Selma both cracked $50 million domestically.
Some theatergoers brushed off the acquittal and defended the film, citing its historical importance. The film documents Nat Turner’s slave rebellion in 1831. Others were understandably perturbed, due partially to the recent influx of poorly handled sexual assault cases, including but not limited to that of Stanford varsity swimmer Brock Turner, who was found guilty of three felonies but only served three months in prison. Though there are clearly relatable arguments for and against seeing The Birth of a Nation in theaters, that hardly makes the choice easy, and it might prove more challenging for some than others; a black woman, for example, may either support a piece of art that documents an important historical moment for her race, or reject it to oppose the assaults allegedly committed against her sex.
Though it will perhaps be less personal for some members, choosing sides will not be simple for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, either. If the Academy nominates The Birth of a Nation or Nate Parker for any Oscars, it’s certain to receive backlash from a society exponentially more aware of campus sexual assault than ever before. If it doesn’t, it will be criticized by a culture that, on the whole, is also more sensitive to issues of race than years past, due in part to several recent shootings of young black men, including Eric Garner, Michael Brown and Trayvon Martin.
The Academy must also consider the increase in recent charges of racism levied toward the film industry. Just last year, many lambasted the Academy for only nominating Selma, Ava DuVernay’s feature that documents the 1965 civil rights march in Selma, Alabama, for two awards, Best Picture and Best Original Song. The Academy has been further criticized for the lack of black actors nominated for Oscars recently, prompting the online campaign #OscarsSoWhite. The last time the Academy nominated a non-white performer was in 2014 when Lupita Nyongo’o (12 Years a Slave) won for Best Supporting Actress, and Chiwetel Ejiofor (12 Years a Slave) and Barkhad Abdi (Captain Phillips) were each nominated. Thus, defending the Academy, or Hollywood, is a futile endeavor, as it is clear that both have a race problem that needs correcting.
Alternatively, accusations of sexism must also be considered. In a recent study, the Women’s Media Center found that since 2006, women received just 19 percent of the Academy’s non-acting nominations. A prime example of the Academy perpetuating said sexism is its history of ignoring accusations of sexual assault. Since his daughter accused him of such in 1992, Woody Allen has nine Academy Award nominations, and one Best Original Screenplay win for Midnight in Paris (2011). They have also ignored guilty findings in such cases. Roman Polanski sexually assaulted a 13-year-old girl in 1977. His films since have received 14 nominations, and won six times. Polanski received the Academy Award for Best Director for his 2002 film, The Pianist.
If the Academy decides to change its track record by not nominating Nate Parker, the discourse immediately returns to an issue of race. Before August, the film appeared primed to lead the fight against the glass ceiling looming over the film industry this awards season. Parker was an early candidate for a Best Director nomination and perhaps Best Original Screenplay as well. In 88 years, the Academy has recognized black people just ten times for directing and screenwriting: three have won. Meanwhile, Woody Allen alone has 16 Best Original Screenplays nominations.
However, it’s necessary to mention that many look for any opportunity to pick a fight, even if their reasoning is specious. There were ill-formed arguments that the Academy threw social progressives a courtesy bone when it awarded 12 Years a Slave the Academy Award for Best Picture. Its aforementioned black female supporting actress, Lupita Nyongo’o, also won an Oscar, as did John Ridley, its black screenwriter. Director Steve McQueen and lead actor Ejiofor, both black, also received nominations. By the following year, many were dismayed over Selma‘s “paltry” two nominations, for which it received one Oscar for Best Original Song.
Still, these numbers lend credence to the argument that while it certainly does not oppose progressive racial ideology, the Academy does little to actively promote it, either. The same can, of course be said of its relationship with feminism, as only four female directors have ever been nominated for Best Director. Kathryn Bigelow is the only female winner, for her 2010 film The Hurt Locker. Though the Academy is not obligated to fulfill anything resembling a diversity quota, there’s a certain social responsibility that comes with the power behind nominating black and female artists for globally renowned achievements. Celebrating such filmmakers would inevitably lead to more opportunities and funding for similar voices, and be an ideal step towards ridding the industry of its widespread issues of racism and sexism.
It would appear, then, that the Academy will need to choose between the lesser of two evils: nominate a film helmed by a man acquitted of four felony charges and deal with the perception that they are lax towards issues of sexual assault or, once again, do not nominate a film and its black cast and crew members and suffer through another year of accusations of racism. Further complicating matters is the vow made by the Academy to diversify its own ranks by instituting ten-year term limits, and a commitment to “[recruiting] qualified new members who represent greater diversity”. The cherry on top comes in the form of Cheryl Boone Isaacs. As the Academy’s first black female president, her decision could prove particularly stressful, not only to her, but also to those who put stock in her vote.
However, there’s an alternative option that could prove ideal for the Academy: if The Birth of a Nation doesn’t maintain enough momentum through the rest of the calendar year, the organization can prove its desire to support black artists by throwing its support behind another Oscar-worthy film. Currently, Moonlight appears a possible candidate to fill such a position. Like The Birth of a Nation, its writer-director, Barry Jenkins, is a black man, and it features a primarily black cast. Though it failed to receive any awards at the Toronto International Film Festival — often dubbed a measuring stick for the Oscars — it was highly praised and has a limited release this Friday.
Critical reviews praised The Birth of a Nation, which currently holds a 74 percent and 68 percent rating, respectively, on the aggregate sites Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic. Only time will tell whether it has the legs to be an Oscar contender, but if it happens to be the case, then the Academy will have a difficult decision to make come year’s end.