Birth of a Nation: As Expected, Nate Parker’s Film is Commercial Flop

As expected, Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation turned out to be a major disappointment, premiering to a mute $7.1 million across 2,105 theaters.

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The biopic about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner was a buzzy sensation at the Sundance Film Fest, where it world premiered to standing ovations.  After a  fierce bidding war, it was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million.

But the release was derailed after rape allegations against Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin resurfaced. Both men were accused of sexually assaulting a college classmate over a decade ago. Though they were ultimately acquitted of those charges, news broke this summer that their accuser had committed suicide in 2012. The ensuing controversy overshadowed the strong reviews and may have hurt the film’s theatrical playability and Oscar chances.

Not All Press Is Good Press

“This is a pretty pedestrian result,” said Jeff Bock, a box office analyst with Exhibitor Relations about the opening weekend. “Clearly, not all press is good press.”

Audience for the film:

about half (54%) of all ticket buyers were African-American and 42% were Caucasian.

It is difficult to know how many people had opted not to see the picture because of the 1999 scandal and the media coverage of the rape accusation.

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In hindsight, the film could never stand–or being perceived by the public and reviewed by the critics–objectively or even dispassionately, on its own artistic or even ideological and political merits, due to the controversy of Parker’s 1999 rape case and the poor, incongruous and inconsistent ways that Parker handled his past in the various social media.

I was never a big champion of the film, which I did not see at Sundance but several months later at a special industry screening.  No doubt, Birth of a Nation is an impressive feature debut, but by no means a great film artistically, or “Oscar caliber” picture, as some pundits rushed to proclaim during Sundance.  Overall, it does not begin to compare to 12 Years a Slave, directed by Steve McQueen and produced by Brad Pitt’s company, Plan B.  That movie, you may recall, ended up winning the 2013 Best Picture Oscar.

Social Context: Timing is Everything

The film premiered in late January, amidst the controversy of OscarSoWhite, the deep disappointment expressed by many industry members and movie viewers that not a single black (or other ethnic minority) player was nominated in one of four acting categories by the roughly 6,000 voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences.

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I wonder what would have happened if Fox Searchlight delayed the theatrical release to spring 2017, after the Oscar show (in late February), and forget all about Oscar and other kudos, which were doubtful (in my view) in the first place.