In 2016 #Sundance was the most popular film festival in the United States, featuring nearly 50,000 attendees, and over 70 different films. The festival featured a number of movies that went on to become indie darlings, including #HuntForTheWilderpeople, #LoveAndFriendship, #SingStreet, and #SwissArmyMan, but the two most widely discussed films to come out of the festival were #TheBirthOfANation and #ManchesterByTheSea.
The Birth of a Nation won the Grand Jury Prize for Best Dramatic Film, and sold for a record $17.5 million to #FoxSearchlight, while Manchester by the Sea wasn't far behind, selling for a modest $10 million to #AmazonStudios. But in the time since those films completed their successful Sundance tours their paths have diverged considerably. The Birth of a Nation was a bomb in theaters, while Manchester by the Sea has been a strong indie hit in limited release. So what happened? With their shared origin why did one triumph while the other collapsed?
The answer is an easy one: journalists made the disgusting history of one star unavoidable, while they completely ignored the history of the other. Let's start by revisiting each film and the troubled pasts of both #NateParker and #CaseyAffleck.
Nate Parker - 'The Birth of a Nation'
The Birth of a Nation, written, directed, produced, and starring Nate Parker, premiered to what was described as the most enthusiastic standing ovation of Sundance. Parker, who was previously best known for his performances in movies such as Beyond the Lights, Ain't Them Bodies Saints, and The Great Debaters, was making his directorial debut with The Birth of a Nation, and he looked primed to see his career ascend to stardom.
And then in August of 2016, all of the positive buzz around the film flipped in an instant as Parker's past came tumbling out of the mist. It was uncovered that Parker, and his writing partner on The Birth of a Nation, Jean Celestin, were charged with rape while attending Penn State. While Parker was acquitted of all charges in 2001, Celestin was convicted of sexual assault (though it was later overturned on appeal, and a retrial did not occur because the victim didn't want to testify again). The media stopped covering The Birth of a Nation as the story of Nat Turner, the literate slave and revolutionary leader who the movie was about, and instead began to focus on Parker and the charges levied against him in 1999. Parker and Celestin had gotten off free in the criminal justice system, but now that Parker's star was rising, the media wouldn't let him go. He was continually questioned about the subject on his press tour, and while he maintained that his innocence, he eventually confessed during a 60 Minutes interview that while he did not feel guilty about his actions, he did feel as though he had done something morally wrong.
In the end, the constant barrage of discussion about Parker's 1999 rape case crushed the movie. The film itself received fairly positive reviews, but audiences simply didn't turn out to see it. For once, people decided they couldn't separate the artist from the art.
Manchester By The Sea
While The Birth of a Nation came up short at the box office, Manchester by the Sea started strong in its opening weekend, earning $241,230 on just four screens, making a 2016-leading $60,308 per theater, and continuing its strong run over Thanksgiving weekend. The film has received almost universal praise, and the reception among critics and audiences alike have primed the movie as a clear awards season contender.
And while the star of The Birth of a Nation was berated and crushed for the sexual assault accusations that were raised against him many years ago, there was no such revisitation of the past for the star of Manchester By The Sea. Casey Affleck has long been viewed as someone who was on the precipice of breaking out, with 2007's The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford feeling like the true breaking point that would send Affleck over the top, but that A-list status never came. Instead, Affleck ended up directing I'm Still Here, about then brother-in-law Joaquin Phoenix and his transition from acting to rapping. But of course, the entire premise ended up being a ruse. Phoenix never intended on leaving the film industry and his procession of bizarre media appearances were all an act. The movie failed, and Affleck went back to his old ways of being a not-quite movie star.
I'm Still Here ended up being a failure for Affleck, but things were considerably worse for the only two women involved in the production, the director of photography and a producer. The pair accused Affleck of a number of hugely problematic workplace experiences, most of which revolved around sexual harassment. The producer sued Affleck with allegations of witnessing shocking behavior and being harassed after refusing to share a room with Affleck, while the cinematographer claimed that Affleck had climbed into bed with her and groped her while she slept and that he later verbally attacked her and criticized her constantly for refusing to submit to his advances. The cases were eventually settled out of court, and he never faces the sort of scrutiny that Parker has been faced with.
There are several extraneous factors in exploring why one of these movies failed and the other succeeded. Manchester by the Sea has received vastly superior reviews to The Birth of a Nation, The Birth of a Nation features Parker as a director, writer, producer, and star, whereas Affleck is limited to just playing the lead role, and other factors such as the distributor and release date might play a role in why one of these films has succeeded and the other failed. But the primary reason remains this: Nate Parker's film tried to make a political statement in an environment of heightened racial tensions, whereas Affleck's film is a personal story. It's easy to ignore Affleck's past when it has no relation to the film, but when Parker made a highly political statement with his movie, it was impossible for the media not to take a deeper look at his past.
When Parker created his movie he wanted the film to "start a conversation that [could] promote healing and systemic change in our country." The film's title lends itself to this idea, harkening back to the racist propaganda film that it shares a name with, and reminds us that this country isn't born of racism and white supremacy, but on ideals of inclusion and diversity. But when it turns out that Parker is speaking out against white supremacy and then maintaining a status quo in terms of rape culture, people do not respond well to that hypocrisy.
And in the case of Affleck, his tale is of a more personal variety. While the film certainly looks to impart a message on its audience, those messages apply to each of us on an individual basis, as opposed to society as a whole. The fact that Affleck's role isn't an explicit commentary on a wider societal issue makes it easier to pass on his personal wrongdoings. In talking to Affleck it's easy for an interview to transition into talking about Batman v Superman or Oceans 11, whereas Parker's film lends itself to a discussion about confronting the serious issues our society faces.
The media took the easy way out with these films, and it's not any more complicated than that. With Parker, the subject couldn't be avoided. His movie necessitated the discussion, especially given that Parker inserted a fictionalized rape scene into his story, and that's why the media talked about Parker's history; because they had to. Affleck didn't have to talk about his past because his movie didn't dictate much of a discussion on the topic, it was easy for people to sway the discussion onto other subjects that weren't linked to Affleck's past.
Legally, neither man has to deal with their cases anymore, but it's the media's duty to remind us who these people are, and to speak up for the women whose voices often go unheard. It's difficult to decide what is too far gone when deciding whether or not to separate art from artist, but it's the role of the media to at least give those on the fence as much information as they can about these celebrities before filmgoers make their decision.
What are your thoughts on the histories of Parker and Affleck? Where should we draw the line when separating the art from the artists? Give us your thoughts down in the comments.