The story starts in 1999, two months after Jane Doe's 18th birthday, on the night she couldn't and didn't consent. The scene is Pennsylvania State University, in State College, Pennsylvania, a place sometimes called the Happy Valley. Nate Parker and his friend Jean Celestin, who wrestled together at Penn State, were athlete royalty in a town where Jerry Sandusky was abusing children while legendary football coach Joe Paterno turned a blind eye.
The truth of what happened that night in August is disputed, but the picture that's emerged is nasty, and short: Parker and Celestin allegedly raped an unconscious Doe, a fellow student. Where Parker was acquitted, Celestin was convicted of the crime — which was later overturned on appeal, though he served six months of his sentence.
Eighteen years later, Parker is the writer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation, which arrives in theaters across America on Friday. (Celestin co-wrote the film.) Over the past year, the film — which depicts a fictionalized version of Nat Turner's bloody slave rebellion in August 1831, and takes its title from a Ku Klux Klan propaganda silent film directed by D.W. Griffiths and released in 1915 — has received much breathless press. After its screening at this year's Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight fought and won a bidding war for the rights to distribute the film, paying a festival record $17.5 million.
Before Birth of a Nation, Parker was quietly gaining fame as a competent actor; and while that night in 1999 sometimes came up in interviews, it was mostly ignored. Doe was eager to try her case again, after the initial setback, but prosecutors declined to pursue another case. Most everyone involved had left the Happy Valley. Doe committed suicide in 2012.
Since news of the 1999 rape allegations broke during this cycle of press for Birth of a Nation, praise for the film has slowly dried up — although according to the Hollywood Reporter, its national box-office performance looks to be unaffected. "Conservative estimates show the slave-rebellion drama opening in the $7 million–$8 million range, although some tracking services have it approaching $10 million," they write. "Initially, Fox Searchlight intended to open the pic in 1,500 to 1,800 locations, but it has expanded those plans" — to 2,100, one of its widest releases ever — "thanks to theater owners who haven't been scared off by the controversy surrounding Parker over his involvement in a 1999 rape case. But it remains to be seen whether audiences will follow suit."
To find out, I spoke with a few independent cinema owners about demand for the film, and about whether what happened on Aug. 21, 1999, affected their decision to carry Birth of a Nation or not carry it. For Noah Elgart, part of a family of theater owners in Brooklyn, it's a simple calculation: Audiences want to see the film, so theaters carry it. "It's not like our views," he said. "It's just the industry." Elgart also told me he had "no idea" about Parker's 1999 case, but maintained that the decision to carry Birth of a Nation is purely about public interest.
For Nicolas Nicolaou, owner of Alpine Cinemas in Brooklyn and CinemArt Cinemas & Theater Café in Queens, on the other hand, the matter was more personal. "I could say that there was no way I could not play this film," he wrote to me in an email, "about people standing up to an injustice, even when you know the odds are against you and you will lose the battle. Good people suffering silently!" In Nicolaou's case, it all goes back to the trials of running an independent movie theater. (Which isn't what Nat Turner's murderous slave rebellion was about, but sure!)
"We were the only movie theater in New York City not given first-run movies for some seven years (injustice), a policy imposed on us to close us down. I also suffered silently for seven years of not a single first-run movie, lost my home in trying to keep this movie theater open, but two years ago decided to fight it out," Nicolaou wrote. "Lost many battles, but still standing, offering New Yorkers the best movie deal ever and all first-run quality movies. Senior/child $7 at all times, $10 adult, with the best luxury leather recliners."
Of the several theaters I contacted in the course of reporting this story, most didn't return requests for comment, and when they did, most were hesitant to say much of anything. It's understandable, I think, in light of the film's explicit social message and Nate Parker's misdeeds. He hasn't so much as apologized. People are angry. Parker's critics feel as though he's getting away with something, on the back of a film that isn't great and whose hype is apparently powered by white guilt. Parker will be fine, of course. He will continue to make large sums of money as a successful actor. Birth of a Nation is on track to make a lot of money over its opening weekend, a sum made bigger in light of the controversy surrounding the film's auteur.
I can't help but wonder what a better film about Nat Turner might have looked like. It probably wouldn't have an invented rape scene, and it wouldn't absolve white people. It would be nasty and brutal and bloody and short. It would be true, mostly. But I don't think that's what audiences pay to see.