With "The Birth of a Nation" director Nate Parker in the headlines over his 2001 rape trial, at least one Hollywood institution has decided to step away from the period tale, raising questions about the film's larger marketing campaign and ultimate viability as an Oscar contender.
The American Film Institute late Tuesday canceled a screening of "Birth" scheduled for Friday. It was the first strike against the period slavery tale since accounts of Parker's trial, in which he was acquitted, resurfaced with new details (including that his accuser committed suicide in 2012) in the past two weeks.
"Birth," which Parker directed, co-wrote and stars in, has been an Oscar front-runner since premiering at the Sundance Film Festival in January. The story of the Nat Turner slave revolt received solid reviews and captured the zeitgeist at a moment when Hollywood has been under fire for a lack of diversity in its ranks.
AFI's decision might have set a precedent of sorts for other organizations, and new dominoes could soon fall.
In an internal note run by several Hollywood trade publications, the school's dean, Jan Schuette, said that more information was needed before the event could move forward.
"I have been the recipient of many different passionate points of view about the screening, and I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together — messenger and message, gender, race and more — before we see the film," he said in the note.
A spokeswoman for AFI cautioned, however, that "Birth" was likely to come back. "The screening…has been postponed. It will be rescheduled. It is not cancelled," Liza Ameen, wrote in an email to The Times.
Friday's showing of the film — which hits theaters in October — was meant for students but also fits into a larger award-season rollout of "Birth" in Los Angeles and other cities. The school's move could thus 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. Already some public figures who had lustily supported the movie, including Spike Lee — who moderated a Q&A with Parker at the Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival on Aug. 13 -- have gone quieter since the controversy broke.
AFI's decision however, should also be viewed in a more specific context: The embattled Schuette is currently facing calls from faculty to resign over his administration of the filmmaking school and he's unlikely to want to provide further fodder for criticism to his opponents.
AFI was in the tricky position of holding a screening in the heat of a news cycle; most Hollywood guilds do not begin their screenings of Oscar hopefuls until the fall or even early winter.
So far, the Toronto International Film Festival, where the movie will screen several times in early September, has remained on board; there will be post-screening Q&As and studio Fox Searchlight will conduct a junket in a local hotel. (In keeping with the pattern for most movies that premiered elsewhere, there will not be a press conference for the film.)
Unlike other controversies, the scandal puts at loggerheads several disenfranchised groups. "Birth" was seen as a savior of sorts for critics who believed stories about African Americans have not been sufficiently represented in Hollywood. But the controversy over Parker has also enraged victims-rights groups, who see a systemic attempt by powerful interests to sweep away individuals' concerns.
Searchlight, which acquired "Birth" for nearly $18 million at this year's Sundance Film Festival, appeared intent on pushing ahead with its grassroots campaign, also moving forward with a 12-city national tour for church and community groups.
Veering from the course many studios chart when they have talent caught in controversy, the studio is not shying away from putting its writer-director-star in the public eye — a decision prompted in part by Parker, who has made clear he'd like to address the issue.
Searchlight's decision has captured the attention of Hollywood insiders, who have debated whether — the merits of the issues aside — its strategy is shrewd or foolhardy. Essentially, by choosing to discuss the trial, the studio has hoped to appear candid even if it means risking a prolonged public discussion or, worse, an inflammation of the crisis due to new comments..
(Neither Searchlight nor Parker's own representatives have, to date, booked a major broadcast interview that could create the kind of combustible but cathartic dynamic that has served other figures caught in a scandal, though such an appearance could come closer to the film's release.)
The move toward openness contravenes recent Hollywood history. Studios that have released films by Woody Allen and Roman Polanski — two other directors who have operated under a similar cloud — have often doled out their director in careful spoonfuls, with the subjects themselves reluctant to say much.
In a rare press appearance, Allen — facing renewed criticism at the Cannes Film Festival from Ronan Farrow about the alleged sexual assault of Farrow's sister Dylan — told reporters, "I never think about it… I think it's all silly. The whole thing — it doesn't bother me. I don't think about it. I work."
Parker, though, has spoken out on traditional and social media about the subject, saying in an extended Facebook post last week that he felt contrition about his actions.
"I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom," he wrote. "I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name."
Parker, however, was able to control the message in a social media post. Public Q&As at Toronto, even with that festival's famously generous audiences, could well become a more hotbed environment.
In that sense, the cancellation of Friday's AFI event could also prove beneficial to Searchlight's plans, or at least provide a relief of sorts, with a Q&A at this stage of the news cycle is likely to be far more about the rape case than the film itself.
On Twitter: @ZeitchikLAT
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4 p.m.: This article was updated with information about a broadcast interview.
1:30 p.m.: This article has been updated throughout.
9:25 a.m.: This article was updated with a comment from AFI.