Film screening called off after rape controversy

LOS ANGELES • In a first sign of choppy waters ahead for Nate Parker's slavery movie, the American Film Institute has called off a Los Angeles screening of The Birth Of A Nation amid controversy over an old rape case involving the director, just as Hollywood's awards season swings into gear.

Today's screening at the film institute was to be followed by a question-and-answer session with Parker, in what would have been his first public event since it emerged last week that the female accuser in his 1999 rape trial and acquittal had committed suicide in 2012.

Parker, 36, was little known before writing, directing and starring in the film, which wowed audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was seen as a strong contender at the Oscars next year. It tells the story of Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in Virginia in 1831.

Movie studio Fox Searchlight Pictures has said it stands by the movie, which will get its international premiere at the Toronto Film Festival next month, despite speculation in Hollywood that the rape case will affect the film's marketing and jeopardise its Oscar chances.

The film institute said its dean Jan Schuette told students on Tuesday that the screening had been postponed till an unspecified date because of the "many different passionate points of view about the screening" he had received.

"I believe it is essential that we discuss these issues together - messenger and message, gender, race and more - before we see the film," he wrote in a message to students.

Although Parker said last week that the 1999 incident was "a very painful moment in my life", details of the case have set off a fierce debate in Hollywood, the black community and among women's groups about whether it is possible to separate art from the artist.

Civil-rights activist Al Sharpton and singer Harry Belafonte have defended the film, suggesting that some sections of the media are using the rape case to discredit a powerful story about slave resistance.

The Hollywood Reporter on Wednesday quoted some members of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, which votes for the Oscars, as saying the film had become problematic.

The film is to open in the United States on Oct 7. Oscar nominations are announced on Jan 24. Fox is reportedly monitoring press coverage, with a view to delaying its release if the publicity surrounding the rape case renders a nationwide promotional tour by Parker untenable.

REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 26, 2016, with the headline 'Film screening called off after rape controversy'. Print Edition | Subscribe