'Birth of a Nation' confronts America's racial past and present

Thu Oct 6, 2016 6:07am EDT
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By Piya Sinha-Roy

LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When "The Birth of a Nation" opens in theaters this week, its backers are hoping the film's buzz will finally shift away from the controversy dogging its creator and toward the slavery drama's powerful message about race relations in America.

The film about Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831, was once hailed as an awards front-runner but has been overshadowed by headlines about a 17-year-old rape case involving the writer, director, producer and lead actor, Nate Parker, who was acquitted at a 2001 trial.

As Parker has sought to address the rape case in recent weeks, marketing for the film has shifted to promote the relevancy of the little-known story of Turner to today's Black Lives Matters movement.

Television ads shown nationally interweave scenes of slaves running through cotton fields in 1831 with recent news images of protesters, with lips taped and "I Can't Breathe" signs, demonstrating over the killings of unarmed black men by U.S. police.

The stakes are high for studio Fox Searchlight, which bought the movie in the midst of the controversy over lack of diversity in Hollywood that prompted the resurgence earlier this year of #OscarsSoWhite.

But Parker, 36, said he knew right from the start that he wanted to make a film that "changes the conversation around race in this country."

"I feel like this country is more segregated now than it's been in moments in the past, so seeing that a film is actually speaking to that and progressing the conversation, it's inspiring and encouraging," Parker told Reuters.

The film shares the same title as a 1915 movie, widely seen as propaganda for white supremacy group Ku Klux Klan, but Parker's version reclaims "Birth of a Nation" to show the brutality of racism.   Continued...

Actor Nate Parker attends the premiere of "The Birth of a Nation" in Hollywood, California September 21, 2016. REUTERS/Jonathan Alcorn/File Photo