With the main film festivals of the fall (Telluride, Venice, and Toronto) now concluded, and Martin Scorsese finally confirming that his much-anticipated drama Silence will come out at the end of the year, the next three months will bring a calendar loaded with prestige releases. Among them are films that better reflect the wide range of faces and voices in America (and around the world), which have recently been severely under-represented on Oscar night. Audiences and critics will be paying especially close attention to the works and actors the Academy chooses to recognize, after the awards were condemned this year for nominating only white performers two years in a row.
The question, as always, is which films will be able to stand out once studios begin their awards campaigns in earnest. A lot can happen in a few months; after all, the season has already seen its earliest anointed front-runner practically disappear from the race. The former Best Picture favorite was the big story out of Sundance: The Birth of a Nation (October 7), a searing depiction of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia written and directed by Nate Parker. The film won the festival’s Grand Jury Prize just as the conversation over the largely white Oscar nominations was at its loudest. The movie was acquired by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, with the studio promising a huge publicity campaign in the fall to help push it for awards contention.
Though every Oscar race has early contenders that later fall by the wayside, the story with The Birth of a Nation is much more complex. While the film is coming out less than two weeks from now, it’s been completely overshadowed by reporting into rape charges that a college student filed against Parker and his writing partner 17 years ago, and the subsequent revelation that the accuser killed herself years after Parker was cleared. Though the intricate details of the case don’t lend themselves to quick summary, they reflect very poorly on Parker, as did his immediate reaction to the renewed media coverage. Though it seems crass to analyze the case’s impact on the film’s awards chances, it’s still an unavoidably terrible PR situation for The Birth of a Nation—and Oscar races tend to be rooted in publicity as much as they are in critical acclaim.