Nate Parker’s (previously) highly acclaimed film, "Birth of a Nation" opened over the weekend, however, despite rave reviews at the Sundance Film Festival premiere, and an estimated $10 million opening, the film is being called by many a flop after only reaching $7 million at the box office. Being that the film focuses on such an incredible story many are left scratching their heads wondering what went wrong. Well, of course, there is the controversy surrounding previous rape allegations between Parker himself and Jean Celestin, Parker’s “Birth of a Nation” co-writer. As interest and buzz in the film grew, journalist thought it appropriate to revisit the decade-old story, despite both men being acquitted in the court of law. Why the case resurfaced, I do not know. Do I think it was purposely resurfaced to distract from the film’s success? Yes,
but that’s just the conspiracy theorist that lives inside my head. Like all of us, Parker likely has a past filled with topics he probably would rather not discuss, but living in the public eye opens one up to public scrutiny and one has to be appropriately prepared to handle such scrutiny. Parker is not.
As Parker made the rounds promoting and discussing his film, predictably the case was continuously mentioned in hopes of being further explored, and probably as a method of frustrating Parker, and it worked; Parker never recovered. In every interview, with every mention of the subject you could see Parker’s blood boiling and anger building. Things especially became tense during his interview with Good Morning America’s Robin Roberts when he was probed about the case. When asked whether he felt any remorse for the situation, Parker vehemently refused to address the situation, instead stating that he’d “addressed the situation enough already,” and ultimately wanted to focus on his pending film opening. Understandably, Parker’s anger ultimately got the best of him but it’s not his anger that damaged the momentum of his film, it’s his lack of accountability.
Regardless of his acquittal, something transpired in 1999 between Parker, Celestin and the now deceased woman that undoubtedly scarred all involved for life. In addressing the allegations, I don’t think anyone ever wanted Parker to take full responsibility for what transpired, but undoubtedly there should have been some type of remorse, or at the minimum sympathy, for the situation. Parker’s ultimate and final response to the situation at hand, “I was proven innocent and I’m not going to apologize for that.” So, if viewers were slightly discouraged from seeing his film simply because of his involvement in the case any chance of him winning them over vanished with his stark demeanor, callous attitude, and disinterest in restoring the public’s faith in him as a man.
Watching his previous interviews, it’s clear that Parker has a ‘take it or leave it’ type of attitude that easily limits potential and growth. An attitude that surely hurts him as a film-maker. Earlier this year Parker further alienated potential viewers and audiences with his comments on playing a homosexual character. During the Essence Music Festival, he was quoted saying, “I refuse to allow any piece of work to emasculate me for very specific reasons…That kind of shrinks the pool of available material, but the material that I am blessed to do is material that I can be proud of, that my kids can watch, that my grandmother can watch. And I think that those are the things that over time create legacies.” No, what creates legacies is superb acting and a dedication to the body of art. Parker, like many African American men, has a skewed vision and definition of what masculinity is and means, which only continues to damage African American society. While he may believe he’s taking a stance against Hollywood’s effeminating black men, Parker is pushing the dangers mindset of hyper-masculinity which continues to burden African American males. Furthermore, Parker claims to have taken an interest in Nate Turner’s story as he believes Turner is an important figure who was almost erased from history; what about the stories of Bayard Rustin, Langston Hughes, James Baldwin, and other notable black gay men of whose important stories are often overlooked and are being erased?
Self-sabotage aside, there were forces beyond Parker’s control that also contributed to low turnout in theaters. The very weekend of the opening the southeastern coast was wrecked by hurricane Matthew, which devastated Florida, Georgia, South and North Carolina. Although there hasn’t the number of theaters in these states featuring the movie has not been disclosed, I am sure this contributed to the lack of viewers. And of course, the movie opened at the beginning of the month where money is often notoriously set aside for rent and bills. However, with Parker’s alienation of women, gay black men, and their respective allies his audience becomes severely limited.
There is still time for Parker and “Birth of a Nation” to recover. The first step is to remove Parker as the face and spokesperson for promotion. While ultimately difficult to do being that Parker has placed himself in such a vital position for the movie (As the writer, director, and star) but if he allows one of his more (dare I say) likable costars on the press trail interest in the movie may begin to grow again. If audiences are continually put off by his character as a person then they are likely not to support him. After all, Parker does not have the luxury
(whiteness) of his peers who have faced similar scrutiny for past transgressions, i.e. Woody Allen and Mel Gibson. If Parker does choose to fall into the background and allow viewers to enjoy his movie for the masterpiece it may be, Parker may want to try some sensitivity training, as he speaks louder for his works than his works do for themselves. In the meantime, hopefully, interest in Nate Turner’s story will overshadow Nate Parker’s and his legacy will prevail at the box office.