The 89th Academy Awards are more than six months away, but this year’s Oscars race already has its first controversy.
The latest news in the unfolding scandal embroiling actor-director-writer Nate Parker is that the Toronto International Film Festival said it still plans to host the international premiere of Parker’s already highly-lauded film, The Birth of a Nation, next month. Parker faces renewed criticism after details of his 2001 trial on charges of raping a college classmate resurfaced earlier this week, and it was disclosed that the 18-year-old woman who accused Parker and the film’s co-writer, Jean Celestin, of raping her had committed suicide in 2012.
TIFF organizers told THR in a statement: “TIFF is proud to help bring Birth of a Nation and the important story it tells to audiences. We will present the film as planned.”
Fox Searchlight, the independent film arm of 21st Century Fox, had been widely expected to make a major Oscars push for movie. Parker co-wrote, co-produced, directed and stars in The Birth of a Nation, the story of the 19th-century slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. The movie drew raves from critics following its January debut at the Sundance Film Festival, prompting Fox Searchlight to pay a festival-record $17.5 million to obtain the worldwide distribution rights to the film.
Parker was acquitted in the rape case more than a decade ago and Celestin had his sexual assault conviction overturned on appeal (a higher court deemed his trial attorney ineffective), but the two men have come under fire once again as the media reports troubling details from the case, which included accusations that Parker and Celestin, then both 19, had sex with a Penn State freshman while she was unconscious after a night of heavy drinking. The woman also claimed that the two men had harassed her after she reported the incident, and she eventually won a settlement from Penn State. Both men denied the allegations and said the sex was consensual.
Parker claimed he’s never tried to hide the case, noting it is mentioned in his Wikipedia page, but the details were not widely known. There was a firestorm after he addressed the accusations in an interview with Deadline saying, in part, “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope.” Later Parker posted a lengthy statement on Facebook.
Fox Searchlight reportedly is moving ahead with its publicity plans but has hired an outside crisis management, public relations firm. In the past, both moviegoers and Oscars voters have proven willing to separate art from troubled artists in the past, handing nominations and awards to stars such as Woody Allen and Roman Polanski. Given that Parker is the star and primary creator of the movie, it would be virtually impossible for the studio to promote the film without his involvement.
As for the moviegoing public, it’s hard to say how much of a box-office hit Fox Searchlight could suffer as a result of the negative publicity around Parker. Independent films don’t typically rake in money at the box office, with the occasional exception, but the Oscar-buzz was sure to help The Birth of a Nation financially. It’s worth noting that another Fox Searchlight film, Birdman, was among the lowest-grossing Best Picture Oscar winners of all-time, but it went on to gross more than $100 million worldwide, while 12 Years a Slave (another slavery-themed period drama) grossed $187 million in global ticket sales, according to Box Office Mojo.
Reports suggest Fox Searchlight has no plans to tweak its marketing strategy in the wake of the controversy. The studio has mostly stayed silent aside from a statement acknowledging the sexual assault case, which noted that Parker “was found innocent and cleared of all charges.” The studio’s statement also said: “We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.” The New York Times cited anonymous sources involved with The Birth of a Nation as saying that Fox Searchlight does not plan to change course on its promotion of the film, which includes plans to have Parker tour U.S. universities and churches as the public face of the movie. Variety noted that the studio has enlisted the help of an “outside crisis P.R. firm.”
Fortune reached out to Fox Searchlight for comment and will update this article with any response.
On Thursday, Deadline cited a Hollywood consultant who suggested that the studio needs to screen The Birth of a Nation for as many viewers as possible so that the public can judge the film based on its content more than its creator. Hollywood veterans also told Deadline that Fox Searchlight needs to keep the conversation around the movie focused more on the issue of race at a time when racial tensions in America have been on the rise.
In fact, when Fox Searchlight opened its wallet to acquire the rights to The Birth of a Nation earlier this year, the move came amid another Oscars-related controversy that stemmed from the complete lack of non-white acting nominees at the most recent Academy Awards. The fact that Parker’s film was created by and starred many African-American actors, along with bringing another important and well-known slavery narrative to the big screen, was certainly not lost on various commentators who held up the film as an obvious awards contender that would help ensure more diversity among the next crop of Oscar nominees.
Now, the movie’s Academy Award aspirations, as well as Fox Searchlight’s quest to justify the money it spent at Sundance, are up in the air as long as Parker and his past remain under the microscope. The Birth of a Nation is set to premiere in U.S. theaters on Oct. 7.