One Player's Opinion: An Imperfect Storm Swirls Around 'Birth of a Nation'
Author and award-winning creative campaign writer, Thembisa S. Mshaka (@PutYrDreams1st), shares her opinion about the "imperfect storm" that surrounds Nate Parker's Birth of a Nation. Do you agree with her assessment? Share your thoughts in the comments section underneath.
There have been a number of conversations taking place simultaneously online about, Birth of a Nation, a hotly anticipated film and its creators. As someone who makes a living as a member of the media and as a longtime marketing and advertising campaign writer, I am keenly aware of how conversations can be sparked, driven and guided. I also have moderated conversations with a wide range of participant—from luminaries to high school students—and the conversation can turn on a dime, especially when the topic is incendiary.
Mix the true story of abolitionist rebel Nat Turner, the dramatization of that story by actor-turned-director, Nate Parker, and the powder keg of a rape case that had lain dormant for 17 years involving him and his screenwriting partner Jean Celestin, and we have got ourselves a raging forest fire. I have seen commenters catch selective amnesia over how broken the justice system is while having this conversation. I have seen the shaming of victims, ignorant to what constitutes consent or the vast spectrum of what can be a trigger for a survivor of rape or sexual assault.
I have seen, "Why [all] the hubbub now?" comments of Hoteppian conjecture from people derailing a film with a black director, black writers and an overwhelmingly black cast. What we have [in this mix] are Parker's exoneration, Celestin's conviction—that was eventually overturned—and a film that Fox Searchlight spent $17.5 million to acquire after its impressive showing at this year's Sundance Film Festival. I don't deny that the milestone of the acquisition, the film and the story it tells are important. They absolutely are. As a black woman raised by Pan-Africanist parents who also happens to be a filmmaker, though, I mean, come on! I have been waiting for this film for decades. I wanted to be first in line for it and throw my money at it. But Nate Parker is a polarizing figure and the rollout of the film quick-froze my enthusiasm.
I wasn't alone. Birth of a Nation by no means "tanked" by black feminists—which was another ignorant and incorrect strain of conversation moderated by people who are unable to see that sometimes, auteurs sabotage themselves. What tends to get overlooked by civilians, cinephiles and the casual moviegoer are the business contexts for a project's success or missteps. I seek to illuminate them here, why? Because facts matter.
My assessment of what went down and what went wrong in Birth of a Nation is part one of my two-part feature for Okayplayer. Below, here are a few things regarding the first week underperformance of Birth of a Nation. My full, in-depth review of the film will be available for digestion and discussion next week.
Black audiences show up for the funny, not slavery:
Generally speaking, moviegoing audiences of color are more likely to show up in droves for comedies with black casts. Projections are already high for an event such as Kevin Hart's What Now film, which opens today, while it has already been apparent that black cinephiles aren't running to see stories of our subjugation. We already live subjugated and suppressed lives, so we're more likely to pay to escape it before we fork over money to relive it. This is also why the argument that black people will "make sure Kevin Hart's movie is huge" rings false. Black people will make comedies across the board a success, no matter what historical black drama is in theaters.
12 Years a Slave made under $1 million on its opening weekend, which was dolled out in limited release and ultimately debuted clocked in at $923,715 on 19 screens for a $48,617 per-screen average. So, at $7 million box office debut takeaway, Birth of a Nation underperformed, but will likely pay for itself even if that takes longer than projected. It only cost Birth of a Nation $10 million in funding to be produced, $17.5 million to acquire and an estimated $10 million more to market to the public. In the end, Birth of a Nation will be fine. Be glad that with this adding to the growing narrative of unapologetically black content that a project like Birth of a Nation got made and released at all.
White folks aren't lining up to see Birth of a Nation:
Simply put, those whose skin is without melanin understood the marketing behind Birth of a Nation. They probably weren't lining up in droves to see depictions of their ancestors being slaughtered by Nat Turner and his friends.
Nobody even really knows who Nat Turner is or Nate Parker for that matter:
Nate Parker as a lead in a drama is a first here. And before you try and point out something like The Great Debaters, a film that was really good, Denzel Washington was the lead actor in that film. So, there's that... plus because of Eurocentric teaching in American schools, even fewer people know who Nat Turner is. Outside of the "Black Movie Universe" and those who have studied a thing or two about black cinema, Nate Parker has relatively little-to-none name recognition as an actor. What few he did have he effed up with his badly handled press on the film in relationship to his rape case.
Which brings me to point number four...
Nate Parker is his own worst enemy in all of this:
In both the media and in real life, Nate Parker has been his own worst enemy for his own film's debut. After having been party to an alleged rape case 17 years ago, Parker has done nothing as a "Christian" to atone, has given back nothing to rape survivors' organization or even educate others on the merits of consent which is insulting to say the least. And then, once he did interviews with the press, he was remorseless and cavalier, with the exception of his interview with EBONY's Britni Danielle. His 60 Minutes and Good Morning America performances were exactly that, and rang false to anyone who stayed to listen.
Hubris is a helluva drug, Mr. Parker. You just do not get curt and dismissive with a veteran journalist like Robin Roberts. You see the actual convicted rapist, screenwriter Jean Celestin, has, to date, kept his trap shut.
The Hollywood studio also messed up Birth of a Nation's rollout:
Despite the studio that purchased the distribution rights of Birth of a Nation claiming they were aware of Nate Parker's legal issues — they still managed to botch the movie's rollout by inking a deal with Parker, then trying to "get ahead" of a non-story by dredging up the case. Nobody care about the case in the media on his other films because nobody brought it up. The studio largely has themselves to blame for this media fiasco impacting their receipts, bringing the opening weekend in $3 million shy of their own projections. Sad, really, but once I learned about Nate Parker's case it tainted Birth of a Nation for me.
Sorry, Hotep Twitter, there was no Birth of a Nation conspiracy:
The theory was kicked around a bit, but let's be honest, there was no ulterior motive to derail the black man here, Hotep Twitter. Simply put, business was not handled on several levels. See examples 1-5.
Birth of a Nation just might not be as impactful as advertised:
Nate Parker's project is currently receiving mixed reviews from critics and moviegoers alike. What this means is that maybe it isn't the holy grail or rebellion films that it was hyped up to be. Mixed reviews will also affect word-of-mouth promotion in a major way. I wish that all of this could have gone differently for Nate Parker and those involved. I personally appreciate much of his work, especially AmerICAN, a short film Parker wrote and directed that I highly recommend, but let's be truthful here: Karma forgets nothing in the end.
Thembisa S. Mshaka is an award-winning creative campaign writer/producer (The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill) and a 3-time festival selected filmmaker. She is also a business author. Chuck D of Public Enemy calls her book, Put Your Dreams First: Handle Your Entertainment Business, “the definitive industry bible.”