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Arts and Entertainment

AFI Cancels 'Birth Of A Nation' Screening Amid Nate Parker Rape Controversy

(Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)
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The American Film Institute has canceled an upcoming screening of The Birth of a Nation amid the crescendo of controversy over filmmaker and star Nate Parker's 1999 rape case.

As The New York Times wrote earlier this week, The Birth of a Nation "was supposed to be a corrective to #OscarsSoWhite....positioned as a balm for an industry long criticized for sidelining minorities." The film, which Parker—an African American filmmaker—wrote, directed and starred in, drew enormous buzz at last year's Sundance Film Festival, selling to Fox Searchlight a record $17.5 million and emerging as an early Oscar favorite.

Friday's AFI screening and Q&A would have been Parker's first public event since his alleged role in the 1999 rape case resurfaced, making national headlines. Parker and Jean Celestin, his then-roommate and future The Birth of a Nation co-writer were charged with raping an unidentified 18-year-old woman while they were students at Penn State; Parker was later acquitted in a 2001 trial. Last week, news broke that the woman committed suicide in 2012 after several prior attempts.

The film is set for wide release on October 7, with a nationwide promotional tour scheduled for the interim. This is the first Parker event to be canceled, and it raises questions about the movie's future—and Parker's role in its promotion. The school's decision "could serve as a bellwether for Hollywood guilds and other groups seeking to decide whether to host their own award-season events for the Oscar hopeful," according to theL.A. Times.

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For an in-depth look at how the Hollywood damage control machine works and what Fox Searchlight failed to understand about the Parker case, we highly recommend Kate Briquelet's overview of the story on The Daily Beast and Anne Helen Petersen's longform take on the situation for BuzzFeed.

The entire situation is eight kinds of complicated, and heavily steeped in issues of race, gender, and intersectionality. The question of whether Hollywood audiences are willing to overlook an auteur's misdeeds in the name of their art has lingered since the earliest days of film (see: Woody Allen and Roman Polanski as the prime examples). The tide has begun to turn in recent years, with audiences and critics increasingly unwillingly to turn a blind eye to these kind of allegations. But Nate Parker was no ordinary filmmaker; he was supposed to be a shining black knight, swooping into the void of high-profile filmmakers of color and addressing race in America with an awards-contender blockbuster. So can we ignore alleged violence against women in the name of race, and because of our desire to see a talented black filmmaker succeed? I certainly don't have the answers. Here's what essayist Roxane Gay wrote in a nuanced New York Times op-ed this Sunday:

I cannot separate the art and the artist, just as I cannot separate my blackness and my continuing desire for more representation of the black experience in film from my womanhood, my feminism, my own history of sexual violence, my humanity. “The Birth of a Nation” is being billed as an important movie — something we must see, a story that demands to be heard. I have not yet seen the movie, and now I won’t. Just as I cannot compartmentalize the various markers of my identity, I cannot value a movie, no matter how good or “important” it might be, over the dignity of a woman whose story should be seen as just as important, a woman who is no longer alive to speak for herself, or benefit from any measure of justice. No amount of empathy could make that possible.

Surely, there will be many other takes to come. In the meantime, AFI has billed the screening as indefinitely postponed, and announced that next week they will be holding "a special moderated discussion so we may explore these issues together as artists and audience."