MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

27 Weeks To Oscar: Ohhhhhhh

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A lot of things are unfolding at once in the Nate Parker-The Birth Of A Nation story. Once emotions are stirred, it’s understandably hard to sort them out. Some would say that you shouldn’t have to sort them out. But for better or worse, that’s how my mind works.

The Birth of A Nation is now dead in terms of Oscar and unlikely to receive a full theatrical release, as in the 1,500-screen wide opening reported as part of Searchlight’s Sundance-negotiated contract. [Editor’s note: Early Wednesday evening, Variety reports, the release and interviews will continue. Oscars are something “Fox Searchlight management considers… a secondary concern, sources say. The company, which is opening the movie wide on Oct. 7, as planned, is more interested in the film being a commercial success than it is with capturing awards.“]

This is not a judgment of the movie — an entirely different conversation — but of the situation. Searchlight bought an underdog movie at Sundance, a big move for a big movie, one with an important message as well as explosive new talent, both on the screen and behind the camera. But Nate Parker is now toxic.

This is not Woody Allen, accused but not prosecuted over allegations of something horrible after a long, hugely successful career. This is not Roman Polanski, who was an established star director, a victim of many losses throughout his lifetime, and almost immediately the beneficiary of a cultural variable as he continued to date women under 16 years of age once he relocated to France. But we are beyond arguments over simple details.

Both the best and the worst of the history and how the story is being covered is in the Daily Beast piece on Parker and his writing partner, Jean Celestin, who was also accused of (and prosecuted for) rape. Journalists Kate Briquelet and M.L. Nestel went through public documents on the accusations and subsequent criminal and civil cases, and did a pretty good job of synthesizing a narrative. On the other hand, they do a lot of spinning, enough to turn facts into factoids.

The piece opens with “It was no simple wave,” referring, as the story spins, to the exalted post-premiere moments at Sundance for The Birth of A Nation, as Nate Parker signaled for Jean Celestin to come on stage. And in a lovely piece of fictional artistry, seven paragraphs later, the writers put thoughts in Celestin’s mind, suggesting a connection to Parker waving his pal Celestin into the bedroom, it is inferred, to rape a drunk, near-unconscious woman seventeen years earlier at Penn State.

That would be okay for a prosecutor giving a closing argument, once the facts have been presented. For alleged journalism? Bullshit. If the writers and their editors believe in the guilt of these men, fine… but as journalism, it is unacceptable to lay out a list of facts purporting to be seamlessly connected when they simply are not.

My objection to the journalism here is not a defense of Parker or Celestin. But the problem of how the media leads us into these conversations is real. It’s written in the way a friend tells another friend a story… subjective. But also makes claims, in style and form, to be journalism… objective. Not okay. Some smart people I know have bought this as great journalism because it is excellent emotional writing, loaded with facts and semi-facts and judgments. But it is not good journalism. It’s just good writing. It’s storytelling, but is it the story?

Briquelet and Nestel pored over the transcripts and attempted to get down to a proper accounted. They only interviewed a couple people for the piece. But there is value in the facts… even if the presentation is profoundly flawed.

What actually happened?

This college freshman got very, very drunk, went to the apartment of two 19-year-olds, one of whom she testified that she had oral sex with the day before. A third guy was there,but didn’t go into the bedroom. She ended up having sex and/or oral sex with the roommates, but she had no clear recollection of having sex with either, or much of anything else that happened.

She woke up alone, feeling she had been raped. But at some point soon after, she testified, Nate Parker gave her a cigarette. She smoked it. There was consensual sex. And she went to sleep. “The entire night before was a blur, she claimed,” narrates the Daily Beast cut-and-paste.

When she next woke, she testified that she was in a lot of pain.

“I said I just didn’t appreciate men sleeping with a woman when she is passed out,” the woman testified.

I believe her testimony from the key pieces here. One-hundred percent.

She may have been conscious enough to seem to be present to Mr. Parker. But most of us know what it is like to be drunk and only half there (or an eighth or a sixteenth), in and out of awareness. I believe that these guys – both of them – did the wrong thing and took advantage of her.

Honestly, I can’t find an excuse for Nate Parker… neither for him having sex with a partner who had been consensual just the day before, but who was now drunk to the point she could not consent. But even more inexcusable was him choosing that moment to bring another person in the sexual act.

But now, the big question. Seventeen years later, can he be forgiven for this sin?

By some, yes. By some, no.

But the narrative behind this film was meant to be the arrival of a 37-year-old actor-writer-director at the end of a seven-year journey… breakthrough… important subject… important film… celebrate. And now, this is impossible.

Did I say “impossible?” Yeah. Impossible.

Fox Searchlight is one of the smartest distributors in the game. But they blew this one. They had six months to package this story in the best light possible, to get it investigated and reported by some significant journalist who would set the standard for discourse. But instead – and it is so dumb that I tend to think that Searchlight was not behind the choice, but that inexperienced Nate Parker was – a couple of interviews with Penske outlets, one co-written by a worn-out former NYT reporter and the other by a gossip columnist/editor who often gets the story wrong.

Not only did these outlets walk the line between cover-up and gossip attack, but they began a feeding frenzy to which Searchlight could not respond. When you go out with something like this to, say, ten outlets, you have a chance to find some balance. But when you start with two, and no one trusts the spin contained in what they have read, everyone wants a piece for themselves. And you can’t have Nate Parker doing 30 interviews about being an alleged rapist.

If they went to, say, Cara Buckley, and put it all on the table, there was the chance that the New York Times would bury the film and the filmmaker with a single article. But if the piece was not damning, everyone else chasing after would be manageable.

Of course, the deadliest blow was not the mediocre interviews, but the story of the suicide of the alleged victim, as told by her surviving brother. Only hours after the first wave.

Game over.

You can try to talk your way out of that first wave… but when the “surprise” suicide landed – of course, hungrily lapped up by the same outlets who wouldn’t offer clarity on the terms behind their “exclusive” interviews – then you were withholding… even if you claim you didn’t know… even if you didn’t know… perhaps especially if you didn’t know.

What did Fox Searchlight know and when did they know it?

I don’t think we will know that for a while. But that doesn’t matter anymore.

Move along. Nothing to see here.

If I were in Nate Parker’s shoes, I would go away until after next year’s Oscars. Just get away from it all. Then do a serious piece with a serious media outlet offering sincere self-flagellation.

And then, perhaps, a slow recovery is possible.

But put the movie away. Take the award season away. Don’t go to the festivals.

No one can ever win the argument about why a date rape that seems like it might have led to a suicide is okay. No one is well served by being their own lawyer (or publicist). No one can ever be sorry enough to regain the high ground when a story like this comes to light. At least, not with enough people to make for a successful film release.

And with so much of this story being so sad and cruel and unfair in so many ways to so many… that’s probably a good thing.

Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
La La Land
Manchester by the Sea

As noted before… these are not locked… if I could write in pencil on the web, I would. I could give you another list next week.

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10 Responses to “27 Weeks To Oscar: Ohhhhhhh”

  1. YancySkancy says:

    Yeah, that business about the wave in the Daily Beast article is uncalled for. It’s certainly unnecessary — a simple rundown of the various testimonies is enough, but writers gotta be writers, I guess. The sad truth, of course, is we can never know the whole truth in these cases because all we have to go on is what the parties involved have to say, and most of them were probably impaired at the time. I would have liked more of an explanation as to how Parker was acquitted while Celestin was prosecuted. Even if they thought she was having consensual sex with Parker, seems like his ‘tagging in’ a third party without her consent would be actionable as well.

    Do we need to brace ourselves for conspiracy theorists claiming this is a racist ploy to keep OscarsSoWhite? I hope not. The story’s sad enough as it is.

  2. YancySkancy says:

    Actually, good showings for Fences, Moonlight, Lion and Loving could mitigate the OscarsSoWhite issue. I hope so, even if they all suck, because the incessant internet outrage gets tiresome, even if you’re sympathetic to the issue.

  3. Chris L. says:

    Officially concerned now that Silence won’t be released this year. And maybe it just isn’t ready, but this game of release date musical chairs always rankles me when someone of Scorsese’s stature is left out. Denzel Washington must direct and edit at lightning speed to have Paramount schedule his film first, given when they each started.

    But the one I’m most skeptical about is Snowden. If DP has already seen it before listing it above, that would be the first truly positive indication I’ve encountered on any site.

  4. pat says:

    Why are journalists more concerned about the impact of the story on the film’s Oscar potential rather than its impact on its box office, or Parker ‘s future career, or Black Lives Matter, or the Nat Turner story, or campus sexual assault in general?

    It does make me think conspiracy theory. But more like a conspiracy of Harvey Weinstein, Denzel Washington, Ang Li and Kenneth Lonergan.

    What if they postpone the film’s release until next March? Will moviecitynews and Daily Beast and Hollywood Elsewhere all lose interest in the story completely?

  5. Bob Burns says:

    I don’t buy the argument that the action of a drunk nineteen year-old is more morally reprehensible than the actions of a couple of grown men, the reverse, I would think, except the two grown men were white and members of the Hollywood tribe, and the former 19 year old is black, and, most definitely, not.

    Hollywood is a racist village. Just start from there for once. Nice people, but we all know, and are related to, many otherwise very nice people who are racist.

    Bottom line, white rapist = Oscar, black rapist no Oscar.

    I don’t think Woody and Roman should have been nommed or given Oscars, and said so. Often. The only message here is that rape by white club members is just one of those things. Otherwise, not.

    Bigots. The outcome is that fewer far people will see an important movie.

  6. YancySkancy says:

    I meant to add that I find the statement from the Searchlight source to be totally ingenuous. As Variety reported it, “The studio is more interested in the film being a commercial success than it is with capturing awards.” That may technically be true, as profits trump awards in the film business every time. But clearly they picked up the film in large part because it seemed like an awards no-brainer, and undoubtedly knew that much of its commercial potential would be tied to awards attention.

  7. YancySkancy says:

    Bob: I won’t deny the existence of racism in Hollywood, but I can’t help but think if Nate Parker had a long, established, award-heavy career prior to the charges against him, he too might get the same treatment as Allen and Polanski.

    But all these cases are different. Polanski admitted his guilt, then ran. Allen has steadfastly maintained his innocence and I believe has never been charged. Parker admits a sexual encounter, says it was consensual, and was brought to trial and acquitted. So using them as points of comparison with each other can only get you so far.

  8. lujoc says:

    Fences was already likely to get Actress and either Actor or Director for Denzel – now it might become the default favorite for Picture too. If Denzel wins Director, has anyone else in Oscar history ever won three Oscars in three different categories?

  9. ThirteenthLetter says:

    Right, right, I see. We need to forgive and forget about rape if the rapist’s skin color serves a valuable political purpose. You guys are so, so progressive. So woke.

  10. YancySkancy says:

    lujoc: Francis Ford Coppola and Billy Wilder have both won in 4 separate categories (Director, both writing categories, and as producers of Best Picture winners). Walt Disney won in various short subject categories, both animated and live action, as well documentary features and shorts.

Quote Unquotesee all »

It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon