Nate Parker’s Rape Case Offers Unprecedented Awards-Season Challenge

Most awards voters have learned of Parker’s sexual assault charge before they’ve had a chance to see his movie, “The Birth of a Nation”

Nate Parker Birth of a Nation

“How will Nate Parker’s 17-year-old rape case affect the awards chances for ‘The Birth of a Nation’?” is not a question that should be asked at this point.

But it is being asked, because in some circles in Hollywood (and yes, in this column) everything is viewed through the lens of movie awards, as trivial as that undoubtedly is when you’re talking about serious real-life issues.

The decision on the part of Parker and Fox Searchlight to speak publicly about the charges right now to Hollywood trade papers was itself a clear campaign stratagem: an attempt to deal with the issue before the heat of awards season, to try to put it behind them before Parker takes his movie to the Toronto International Film Festival next month, meets the press and then wades into the long slog of awards season.

But it’s not working; Going public, despite the fact that Parker was acquitted of rape charges and his Facebook apology was a model of how to face rather than sidestep difficult questions, only fanned the flames. As we learned with Roman Polanski and Woody Allen, some issues are too big to be ignored when movies are in the running for Oscars.

But Polanski won the Academy Award for Best Director in 2003, some 30 years after his rape conviction. Allen is consistently nominated for Oscars, and was given a hero’s welcome when he appeared at the show in 2002.

The difference is that Polanski and Allen were celebrated artists before the controversies surrounding them arose; Nate Parker is largely unknown. With only a splashy Sundance debut under Parker’s belt, the fact is that most people — including most voters — have learned that he was once accused of rape before they’ve had a chance to see his movie.

That will almost invariably affect the viewing experience when they finally do sit down with the film.

And that puts this case in new territory. We don’t know whether the controversy will persuade Academy and guild voters not to cast ballots for “The Birth of a Nation,” just as we don’t know whether those people would have otherwise voted for the movie because they’d think it was important for the Academy to recognize diversity in the age of #OscarsSoWhite.

We don’t know whether the director’s history will hang over the film’s Toronto screenings and be a topic of conversation in every interview he does at TIFF, though chances are that it will.

We don’t know if this kills Parker’s awards chances, or if it really is possible to face an unpleasant history early enough to make it irrelevant by the time the voting begins.

My suspicion is that this deals a heavy blow to “The Birth of a Nation,” though everything in me screams that I shouldn’t even be trying to measure the damage to a awards campaign when weighed against the damage to lives.

And without having seen the movie, I have no idea if the film is good enough to make the controversy irrelevant, though that’s a tall order indeed.

Sasha Stone at Awards Daily considered the issue recently, and had this to say:

“[Y]es, if you choose, you’re allowed to be angry that anyone would dare to worry about Nate Parker’s awards prospects when an incident like this continues to cast its awful shadow after 17 years. But I’m going to say that Nate Parker is allowed to be concerned about those awards prospects and to worry how this will affect his career going forward. Any African-American filmmaker would be. It’s all the more significant in a year when the Academy was supposed to finally take steps toward rectifying its utterly racist history of awarding mostly white actors and filmmakers in every branch, after its embarrassing oversight last year, shutting out worthy black actors for the second straight year.

“If Sean Penn and Woody Allen and Roman Polanski are all Oscar winners, how can anyone say with a straight face that awards voters should withhold honors from filmmakers who have a checkered past? Woody Allen has been nominated 12 times since the Soon-Yi story broke. He even won Best Original Screenplay after his daughter wrote an op-ed alleging he sexually abused her. Yes, outrage culture has pitchforked Woody Allen into near exile, yet the Academy is still A-OK with the movies he makes. Roman Polanski won the Best Directing Oscar long after his own rape conviction. CONVICTION. Nate Parker was not even convicted, but do you really think these Academy voters will forget about what he did the way they forgot and forgave Polanski?

“The reason this story is being discussed now is because people are beginning to see that the movie might not get a fair shake, which is perhaps why Parker has chosen to talk about it this week, before awards season gets underway. The problem for him is that he’s presenting his feelings to a culture that feeds on outrage…

“Thus, if you’re asking the question whether or not this case will impact Nate Parker and Jean Celestin’s awards prospects the answer to that is absolutely. If you’re asking whether it should matter or not if it does, well, that one’s on you.”

So yes, Hollywood will ask the question, and I’ll reluctantly try to answer it and will come up short. And Parker and Fox Searchlight will have a tough road ahead of them.

Questions, even ones that shouldn’t be asked, are easy. Answers are hard — and in this case, nowhere to be found.