Eleven months ago, a small independent film premiered at a major Park City, Utah, film festival to thunderous applause, rave reviews and standing ovations. Written, produced and directed by Nate Parker, a black man, with a mostly black cast, "The Birth of a Nation" — a retelling of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion — was immediately labeled a front-runner for Hollywood's top prize a whole year in advance, the perfect antidote to #OscarsSoWhite. Months later, however, stories resurfaced about a rape charge filed against Parker while he was a student, for which he was eventually acquitted. Many considered Parker's response far too self-involved and the fast-track expectations for "Birth of a Nation" came to a screeching halt.
When the film opened in October, it was met with mixed reviews and a $7 million weekend — definitely not what Fox Searchlight was hoping for when it spent $17.5 million to buy the film out of Sundance. It has been ignored at the regional critics awards and absent from most best of 2016 lists.
But all hope of awards season glory was not lost; on Tuesday, "The Birth of a Nation" got six NAACP Image Award nominations. The day before it was also named the sixth-best film of the year by the African American Film Critics Assn. Though the likelihood of the movie receiving any other honors remains slim, nods from these two groups highlight both the film's fall from grace and a long-standing difference of opinion between mainstream Hollywood institutions and those that specifically support and encourage diverse representations on screen.
"While the film may have been viewed as a pariah by the mainstream community, I think [the recognitions] are saying loud and clear that we are going to determine what we find acceptable and not acceptable," said Gil Robertson, AAFCA's president and a member of the NAACP's nominating committee. "I am so thrilled that the members voted to have this film recognized."
"Birth's" debut at Sundance in January was dubbed magical. Taking home the coveted audience and grand jury awards, it starred the multi-hyphenate Parker as Turner, the real-life slave minister who, inspired by the gospel he taught, led a violent and historic rebellion in Southampton County, Va. In the age of #BlackLivesMatter and the calls for diversity that followed the second year of an all-white slate of Oscar acting nominees, the film featured strong performances from Aja Naomi King, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union and Aunjanue Ellis, among others.
When, following an intense bidding war, 20th Century Fox's specialty division Fox Searchlight bought the rights for that record sum, what had just been industry chatter about an awards season contender solidified.
And then, out of the shadows, came renewed attention to a 1999 case in which Parker was accused of sexually assaulting a female student while at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted in 2001 and maintained that the sex was consensual, telling Anderson Cooper in a September "60 Minutes" interview, "I don't feel guilty." Parker's college roommate, Jean McGianni Celestin, who co-wrote the film, also was accused in the assault. He successfully appealed his conviction. The men's accuser committed suicide in 2012.
News of the woman's suicide resurfaced in the wake of Parker's success, and subsequent attention to the case led many to reevaluate their judgment of the film — a move Robertson, as a critic, called "embarrassing." Its Oscar prospects began to dim. As one Hollywood insider told The Times on the film's opening weekend in October, "I think it's going to fall off a cliff [in the Oscar race], especially as it looks like it's going to lose money for the company that overspent on it to begin with."
The film grossed only $15.8 million, and Fox Searchlight had already begun "toning down" its hopes for the film, said Frank Rodriguez, the studio's senior vice president of domestic distribution, in an Oct. 9 interview. By the time a decision was made to not release "Birth of a Nation" overseas, its Oscars prospects, and commercial appeal, were completely shattered.
Parker's representatives did not respond to request for comment on the Image Awards nominations, which feel like a moment of saving grace. "The Birth of a Nation" will compete against "Fences," "Hidden Figures," "Loving" and "Moonlight" for best picture of the year. It's also in the running for best independent film, opposite "Lion," "Loving," "Miles Ahead" and "Moonlight." Parker, who had placed his acting career on hold after 2014's "Beyond the Lights" to produce the biopic he started writing in 2009, is nominated for best actor, writer and director. These are signs, Robertson said, that at minimum some people in the black community can separate the art from the artist.
"That other communities couldn't seem to separate the two is disturbing," he said.