TORONTO - The critically acclaimed slave-rebellion drama "The Birth of a Nation" arrives in theatres on Friday facing uncertain box-office prospects as a cloud of controversy shrouding filmmaker Nate Parker shows no signs of diminishing.
Parker continues to face questions about a 17-year-old rape allegation. He was acquitted in the 1999 rape case, which took place when he and co-writer Jean Celestin were students at Penn State University. Celestin was initially found guilty of sexual assault, but the conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial. The accuser killed herself in 2012.
During a recent interview on CBS newsmagazine "60 Minutes," Parker said he was "falsely accused" and declined to make any apology. In the interview, Anderson Cooper pressed Parker on whether he did something morally wrong.
"As a Christian man ... just being in that situation, yeah, sure,'' said Parker.
"I am 36 years old right now ... my faith is very important to me ... so looking back through that lens ... it's not the lens I had when I was 19 years old.''
The accuser's sibling, Sharon Loeffler, published a column in the trade paper Variety blasting Parker and Celestin for their role in her sister's death and for including a fictional rape scene in their film.
"Obviously, it's a very complicated issue, and further complicated by the content of 'Birth of a Nation' in such an important moment right now for the Black Lives Matter movement, and the culture in the U.S. about racial injustice," said Shannon Walsh, assistant professor in the department of theatre and film at the University of British Columbia.
"At the same time, I feel like we're at a period where impunity — whether it be for the police killing unarmed black men in the streets — or impunity around sexual violence has kind of reached a point of a lot of intolerance."
Parker directed and co-wrote "The Birth of Nation" and also stars as Nat Turner, a literate slave and preacher who leads a revolt against white plantation owners in 1831 Virginia.
During a Toronto International Film Festival press conference for the movie in September, he sought to direct focus back towards the production and highlighted the 400-plus people involved in bringing it to the screen.
"I would just encourage everyone to remember that personal life aside, I'm just one person."
Months before festival screenings in Toronto and Vancouver, Parker's directorial debut had seemed destined for award season glory.
"The Birth of a Nation" won key prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. But the re-emergence of the rape allegation has dominated recent discussion of the film.
Darryl Konynenbelt, media lead for Navigator Ltd., a Toronto-based public strategy and communications firm, said if he were advising Parker, he would suggest that the filmmaker show humility and support his words with actions.
"If this film takes off, and he's going to be speaking to groups across the country and showcasing his film, this isn't going to go away," said Konynenbelt.
"But I could see potential opportunities for him actually being an advocate for women's groups, and talking to colleges and talking to different types of groups ... about the rights of people.
"It's important that he follows up with those remarks and provides an actionable item that would say to the fans, that would say to groups that are concerned about this issue, that he's actually taking this seriously."
— With files from The Associated Press.
— Follow @lauren_larose on Twitter.