This past January at the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight, the independent subsidiary of 21st Century Fox, bid $17.5 million for a critically acclaimed, Oscar-friendly biopic about Nat Turner’s 1831 rebellion—a record sum for the festival, and a very public investment in the work of the film’s buzzy new writer, director, and star, Nate Parker. Now, though, as Parker faces accusations of sexual abuse that have become a familiar motif in Hollywood, social-media users are throwing the studio’s likelihood of recouping that initial investment in box-office totals into question. Will audiences separate art and artist? Or will they boycott the film based on the lurid details of a court case that dates back to Parker’s time in college?
A primer, in case you haven’t been keeping up: Last Friday, Nate Parker, the director, writer, and star of the upcoming October release The Birth of a Nation, gave a detailed interview to entertainment trade publication Deadline about a 17-year-old rape charge from his time as a student at Penn State University. He and screenwriter Jean McGianni Celestin (who shares storytelling credit on The Birth of a Nation) were accused of raping a drunk woman who was in no state to give consent and later harassing her when she pressed charges. Parker, who claimed at the time that the encounter was consensual, was acquitted of all charges; Celestin was initially convicted but successfully appealed the decision and was not re-tried. In the Deadline interview, Parker doesn’t go out of his way to cast new doubts on the woman’s accusations, but his quotes portray him in relatively flattering light: as repentant and reflective on the incident, a grown family man: “I stand here, a 36-year-old man, 17 years removed from one of the most painful… [he wells up at the memory] moments in my life,” the interview reads. “I was cleared of everything, of all charges. I’ve done a lot of living, and raised a lot of children. I’ve got five daughters and a lovely wife. My mom lives here with me; I brought her here. I’ve got four younger sisters.”
The teary interview with Deadline was clearly intended to pre-empt scandal before the film’s commercial release (and expected Oscar run) and to absolve the director of an old scandal that was already on public record; Parker said that he “never hid” the charges from Fox Searchlight (executives could also access them on Wikipedia), and expressed his desire not to let his personal life overshadow the radical material of his film, which he and Celestin hope will resonate in the era of renewed attention to police violence against black men. The sympathetic Deadline interview reads like an attempt at absolution.
Yesterday, though, that absolution got more complicated, when the brother of Parker’s 1999 accuser gave his own interview with Variety, stating that his sister had committed suicide with sleeping pills four years ago. While the two incidents are not linked, the brother linked the woman’s “changed” demeanor to the alleged rape incident. Further, according to court documents from the 1999 case, the accuser said that she had repeatedly attempted to commit suicide in the weeks following the alleged rape.
Fox Searchlight is allegedly re-evaluating its marketing strategy following the news coverage of Parker’s Deadline interview. According to sources who spoke with Variety on Monday, the studio is re-thinking an ambitious proposed plan to have Parker take the film on a roadshow tour across the country; it is also considering withholding interviews until the film premieres at the Toronto Film Festival in September.
Parker, for his part, expressed on Tuesday night in a Facebook post that he was “devastated” to learn of the accuser’s suicide. While he maintained that his sexual encounter in 1999 was consensual, he regrets that he did not show more “empathy” when he defended himself against the charges. “I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom,” he wrote.
Perhaps the active response was warranted, because, on Tuesday, Twitter users—under the hashtag #nateparker—discussed the ethics of supporting Parker and his new film. The scandal elicited comparisons to similar sexual-abuse allegations leveled at directors Woody Allen and Roman Polanski, and users alternately stated their intentions to boycott the film in protest, or else pledged Parker their support. The late accuser’s brother, too, hinted that it might not be a great idea to dignify the passion project of an accused rapist by buying a ticket. In his interview with Variety, he said that the decision to see the movie was “up to the people,” adding: “It’s really a cultural decision we’re making as a society to go to the theater and speak with our dollars and reward a sexual predator.”
But do Americans really incorporate ethics into their box-office decisions? Do they pick movies based on whether the stars and director are good people? Not really, according to the research. To begin with, stars aren’t necessarily the first thing an audience cares about: As we reported in June, big-name stars don’t necessarily determine an audience’s ticket-buying decisions, which are more dependent on the appeal of the movie’s premise itself—suggesting that collaborators aren’t so important as topic, timeliness, and quality. Moreover, negative social-media posts aren’t necessarily deadly to a film’s potential, at least when it comes to judgments on a film’s quality: A study out of Harvard University investigating the effect of negative tweets found no correlation between negative word-of-mouth and box-office decline. Instead, they wrote that a decrease in tweets was associated with a decline in revenue—zero posts about a movie, it seems, is more deadly than a large volume of negative posts.
Examples of men who have purportedly behaved badly, but have been rewarded with high box-office receipts and gushing critical reviews, abound: Allen’s Magic in the Moonlight, released after Dylan Farrow published an op-ed renewing her accusations that he had sexually abused her, did gangbusters at the independent box office; Sean Penn’s Colors was critically acclaimed (and yes, critical praise can have a positive influence on the box office) after tabloids reported he had assaulted then-girlfriend Madonna with a baseball bat. Americans, it seems, have historically made a distinction between artists’ private indiscretions and the appeal of their public works.
In short, The Birth of a Nation’s box-office outlook remains bright, and film critics should temper their overblown predictions about tanking Oscar chances.It’s an unfortunate reality that many celebrities accused of violence against women have been anointed by Oscar voters after the fact: Penn, Allen, Polanski, and Michael Fassbender among them. With a weighty historical topic, great reviews, and clear political relevance on its side, The Birth of a Nation remains Oscar bait—even as it’s linked to a disturbing event separate from its dramatized revolt onscreen.
Potential boycotters face a vexing choice: to support an important film that champions black talent, or to stay home because of the allegations against its director. The #nateparker protest might not have an impact this time around, but the momentum of these conversations suggests that, one day, a similar effort just might. Until then, a woman’s life has been destroyed—while Parker’s, regardless of his complicity in the matter, will continue.