Saturday, February 18, 2017

Failed Oscar Campaigns: "The Birth of a Nation" (2016)

Nate Parker
As awards seasons pick up, so do the campaigns to make your film have the best chances at the Best Picture race. However, like a drunken stupor, sometimes these efforts come off as trying too hard and leave behind a trailer of ridiculous flamboyance. Join me on every other Saturday for a highlight of the failed campaigns that make this season as much about prestige as it does about train wrecks. Come for the Harvey Weinstein comments and stay for the history. It's going to be a fun time as I explore cinema's rich history of attempting to matter.

The Movie

The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed By: Nate Parker
Written By:  Nate Parker (Screenplay), Nate Parker & Jean McGianni Celestin (Story By)
Starring:  Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller
Genre: Biography, Drama, History
Running Time: 120 minutes
Summary: Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher in the antebellum South, orchestrates an uprising.

The Movie

It was supposed to be the film to end the Oscars So White controversy. It was perfect timing for director Nate Parker's directorial debut The Birth of a Nation when it hit the scene at Sundance in January of 2016. The world was demanding more cultural diversity in their Oscar nominations amid a shutout where every acting nominee was white. It wasn't even months or weeks after this moment that Parker came into prominence with his slave rebellion story. It was almost the simultaneous moment. The only issue is that The Birth of a Nation went the route of so many other Sundance darlings, which is the idea of peaking too early.

Sundance movies have gone on to get Oscar nominations. Manchester By the Sea is among this year's nominees to have premiered at the indie darling film festival. However, there was something about being the first film to declare yourself as a "Best Picture front runner" that ended up backfiring. It could be that the film festival atmosphere misdirects people to hype a mediocre movie to the heights of brilliance. Even then, it's staggering to notice how the film shifted between January and its release in October. It wasn't just that other racially diverse films were getting attention, but that as more people saw Parker's vision, it wasn't getting the top notch reviews anymore.

In fact, the argument - while premature - has been made that what followed was pretty much a career ruining moment. While it is likely that Parker could recover well enough to make another movie, it does seem likely that he'll have to work twice as hard to get into the Oscar conversation again, at least at the level he was at a year ago. For now, his film about a slave rebellion that owed some comparisons thematically to 12 Years a Slave remains a strange anomaly, which grew increasingly irrelevant to the Oscar conversation and makes those late to the party not even sure why it's the prize winner of Most Failed Oscar Campaign of 2016.

The Campaign

Parker's film had a relatively momentous beginning thanks in large part to the Academy Awards nominations of 2016. With an overwhelming focus on white-centered movies, everyone was clamoring for racially diverse movies. As Oscars So White happened on the internet, Sundance as happening in real life over in Park City, Utah. The word was going around about this wunderkind film The Birth of a Nation, which was written, directed, and starring a black man and focused on the black experience. It was easy catnip for attendees who wanted to smite racial insensitivity in the face. It did so to the tune of Sundance's highest sale in history with $17.5 million. It also won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition. It even had the buzzwords to make it a festival standout: The next Best Picture winner.

The film would maintain favor with audiences in the months to follow. As Chris Rock lambasted the Academy Awards ceremony with racially charged material, many were holding onto The Birth of a Nation as the film to beat next year. As far as they knew, it was the only major black film competing that Fall. While trying to solve racism, it in fact became a racist issue unintentionally, becoming the token black film that would be elevated to the status of kings. Of course, one could argue that 12 Years a Slave also did that because of racially charged themes, but the consensus by Oscar Night was that that film was a masterpiece. By summer, The Birth of a Nation wasn't really looking so hot critically.

More issues arose when allegations came out against Parker. The most specific case was a sexual assault case from 1999 where he was accused in raping a woman. He was acquitted in 2010 of the charges, but the astigmatism would haunt The Birth of a Nation in its run-up to release. More details arose in which the woman in question committed suicide in 2010 after suffering from trauma from the event. The woman's sister came out and even discussed how offended she was by Parker's actions. Even the film's star Gabrielle Union claimed that:
"Although it’s often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a 'no' as a 'yes' is problematic at least, criminal at worst."
The issues continued when it was questioned if the woman in question's depression was the result of the rape, or if it was tied to a history of depression. Parker would try and discuss the film's merits, but realized that he had to discuss the allegations first and foremost. This lead to what were perceived as mature discussions of how he regretted the action. How sincere everyone felt he was remained a different story. Still, by the end it was a split conversation regarding whether or not one had to separate the art from the artist, and if past allegations should taint the rest of their career. Celebrities like Harvey Weinstein came out in Parker's defense while others wrote passionate defense pieces. 

With all of this said, it didn't help that the film featured rape scenes that would more than remind viewers of the incident. By the time that the film was released, the conversation had also shifted. The Birth of a Nation was no longer the only black movie up for Best Picture that Fall. There were now films like Fences, Hidden Figures, Loving, Lion, and Collateral Beauty - though critically the Will Smith vehicle fared worse than Parker. The novelty was fading fast and the film's reviews made it diminish alongside it. While the film's hopes of being a great story about an important moment in American history was its initial drive, it was now a matter of trying not to bring in outside controversy, which it wasn't really allowed to achieve.

The Payoff

The movie didn't do so well during awards season. Besides its two Sundance wins, the film won a spot in the African American Film Critics Association's Top 10 (coming in at six). There were another 20 nominations, though not from any significant group. The only major nomination to happen in light of his allegations came from the Directors Guild of America (DGA) for Outstanding Directorial Achievement of a First Time Feature Film Director. Beyond that, the film was sunk. It had nothing really to hang its hat on and a little under a year since it was announced as next year's Best Picture front runner, it was now the laughingstock of the season.

The one interesting thing to come out of the campaign was the discussion of celebrity. For many, the building press looked to mark the end of his career. He was no longer the savant that people hoped for. However, there was an interesting parallel in Best Actor nominee Casey Affleck (Manchester By the Sea), who also publicly faced a backlash to sexual assault allegations. It could be that he earned a nomination, but he's even gotten detractors from the likes of actress Constance Wu. Still, the question was asked why he has continued to win and get nominated while Parker failed. Subjectively, one could argue that it was the marketing and the film's appeal to voting audiences. Objectively, it becomes a thornier issue.

The argument could be made that Affleck thrived in part because he had a steady career and that there's little controversial about his manic depressive performance. There's almost nothing within the film that would remind audiences of his personal issues. Meanwhile, The Birth of a Nation's rape scene may remind audiences that Parker in fact was accused of sexual assault at one point. Yet the easy argument is a matter of privilege. Affleck is white and Parker is black; suggesting that it's tougher to forgive celebrities of their crimes if they don't fit a certain mold, i.e. white male with power. It is too early to see if Parker will rebound, but it definitely took a toll on his career momentarily while also raising important ethics questions. 

With this said, there's likely to be no film from 2016 that will look as confusing in the Oscars conversation than The Birth of a Nation. What was supposed to be a triumphant recognition of racially diverse cinema became a controversy regarding allegations related to the artist. It is an example of setting hopes too high while also not preparing for the worst case scenario. Who knows how the film would've played had Parker's past not been an issue. Maybe the reviews would've hurt it enough to still make it a non-issue. Yet it's one of the cruel twists of fate, and it's a cautionary tale for all awards contenders in years to come.

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