The film premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal, the largest deal at the film festival to date. At the end of the festival, the film won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition and was highly praised for its directing, acting, soundtrack and cinematography. The film was theatrically released in the United States on October 7, 2016 by Fox Searchlight Pictures and grossed $16 million.
Set against the antebellum South, The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), accepts an offer to use Nat's preaching to suppress the supposed unruly slaves of multiple southern plantations for profit. As he witnesses countless atrocities by white slave-owning southerners—against himself and his fellow slaves—Nat gathers trusted followers believing that God has selected him as his chosen instrument of freedom and orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
The 2016 film uses the same title as "D. W. Griffith's 1915 KKK propaganda film in a very purposeful way", said The Hollywood Reporter. Parker has said his film had the same title "ironically, but very much by design". He told the magazine Filmmaker:
Griffith's film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.
The Birth of a Nation is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker wrote the screenplay, which was based on a story he co-wrote with Jean McGianni Celestin. Parker learned about Turner from an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. He began writing the screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and had a fellowship at a lab under the Sundance Institute. While he got writing feedback from filmmakers like James Mangold, he was told that a Nat Turner film could not be produced. The Hollywood Reporter said:
But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn't work: Movies with black leads don't play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn't work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial—after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners.
After Parker finished his acting role in Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he told his agents he would not continue acting until he had played Nat Turner in a film. He invested $100,000 of his money to hire a production designer and to pay for location scouting in Savannah, Georgia. He met with multiple financiers, and the first to invest in the film were retired basketball player Michael Finley (who had previously invested in the film The Butler) and active basketball player Tony Parker (no relation). Parker eventually brought together 11 groups of investors to finance 60% of the production budget, and producer Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios joined to cover the remaining financing.
In November 2014, development was underway, and Armie Hammer joined the cast. By April 2015, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union joined the cast. In subsequent months, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Mark Boone Junior also joined. Filming took place in Georgia in May 2015 and lasted 27 days. Parker used the a cappella choir from Wiley College on the soundtrack. Parker had previously been part of a cast that portrayed historical figures from Wiley, in The Great Debaters.
The Birth of a Nation premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016. Before it screened, the audience gave a standing ovation to the introduction of Nate Parker. After it premiered, Variety said it "received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at this year's Sundance Film Festival so far". Following The Birth of a Nation's Sundance premiere, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal. Competing deals also came from The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Netflix. Variety said Fox Searchlight's deal was "the richest in Sundance history".
A teaser trailer for the film was released in April 2016, followed by an official trailer on June 21, 2016. On July 6, the UK release date of January 20, 2017, was announced. It was actually released in the UK on December 9th, 2016. A film poster with Parker in a noose made from an American flag was released on July 15.
20th Century Fox canceled the planned 2017 release of the film in Japan, Switzerland, Norway, Finland, Denmark, Austria and Latin America following the disappointing results at the U.S. box office, which damaged the overall distribution budget for the film.
In August 2016, media attention surrounding the film resurfaced 1999 alleged rape charges against Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin. While students at Pennsylvania State University, Parker and Celestin were accused of raping a female student. The woman went to a doctor, who concluded that she had been sexually assaulted, and local authorities taped a phone conversation between her and Parker in which Parker confirmed that it was he and Celestin who had sex with her. Parker and Celestin denied the accusations and said that the sexual encounter was consensual. Parker was acquitted of all charges in 2001; Celestin was convicted of sexual assault, but the conviction was overturned on appeal in 2005 and a subsequent retrial did not take place because the alleged victim did not wish to testify again.
In a formal complaint filed against Penn State in 2002, the woman also stated that she was harassed by Parker and Celestin following her allegation; the harassment allegedly "included Parker and Celestin hiring a private investigator to publicly expose her as the accuser, and continued bullying by Parker and his friends outside buildings where she had class". The university settled the complaint with the woman for $17,500. The woman committed suicide in 2012, with her death certificate noting that she suffered from "major depressive disorder with psychotic features, PTSD due to physical and sexual abuse, polysubstance abuse". The studio was reportedly taking a wait and see approach before marketing to church groups, college campuses, and Hollywood figures.
Because The Birth of a Nation attracted increased scrutiny due to possible Oscar nominations, and the film itself depicts a fictional, brutal rape that does not appear in historical records, there was significant press coverage about damage control by Fox Searchlight Pictures, the studio releasing the film. Interviews in Variety and Deadline were a focus, as was Parker's response to the event in an impassioned Facebook post.
Writing in Variety, the sister of Parker's alleged victim stated:
As her sister, the thing that pains me most of all is that in retelling the story of the Nat Turner slave revolt, they invented a rape scene. The rape of Turner's wife is used as a reason to justify Turner's rebellion. This is fiction. I find it creepy and perverse that Parker and Celestin would put a fictional rape at the center of their film, and that Parker would portray himself as a hero avenging that rape. Given what happened to my sister, and how no one was held accountable for it, I find this invention self-serving and sinister, and I take it as a cruel insult to my sister's memory.
Gabrielle Union, a rape victim and one of the main stars of The Birth of a Nation, wrote in the Los Angeles Times:
As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly. On that night, 17-odd years ago, did Nate have his date's consent? It's very possible he thought he did. Yet by his own admission he did not have verbal affirmation; and even if she never said "no", silence certainly does not equal "yes". Although it's often difficult to read and understand body language, the fact that some individuals interpret the absence of a "no" as a "yes" is problematic at least, criminal at worst.
After having suffered significant negative publicity for his response to the past rape allegation, Parker chose to deflect the questions about his past legal problems while doing press for The Birth of a Nation at the Toronto International Film Festival. Shortly thereafter, Parker and his handlers chose to cut press interviews short when similar questions came up about his involvement with the alleged rape and its impact on the marketing of the film.
In an open letter, former members of the Penn State student body and staff who were present during Celestin and Parker's trial defended both men's innocence of the 1999 accusations. The group made allegations of police intimidation and a hostile racial climate on campus at the time; both Parker and Celestin are black while their accuser was a white female. The group wrote in The Root:
Misinformation suggests that a spiral into depression was triggered by the alleged incident in 1999. However, court records and testimony by medical professionals revealed a history of chronic depression that dated back to childhood and the use of antidepressant medication that preceded this event.
Several celebrities have come out in support of Parker, including Harry Belafonte, Hal Holbrook, Harvey Weinstein, Al Sharpton, Anthony Anderson, and Sheryl Underwood.
Holbrook wrote a letter to The New York Times defending Parker and the film. In his letter, Holbrook stated:
I am finding it hard to accept the apparent rebuff at the box office of "The Birth of a Nation," particularly after seeing the film last weekend. It is an exceptional piece of artistry and a vital portrait of our American experience in trying to live up to ideals we say we have. No one should miss it — no one who respects our country and its long struggle to define itself. I am sorry about the conflict with Nate Parker's past, but let's try for some honesty here. If you want to make a list of the directors and actors who have rather public indiscretions, and who have in some cases been acquitted of them, start counting. What troubles me is this: Are we being particular here with this extraordinary film because it’s about the racist curse we are struggling to erase from our country and its director is black? The curse is there. Go look at it. Do we have the courage to do that? It's a fine work.
The film suffered from vote brigading on IMDB, possibly as a result of the controversy surrounding the alleged rape. As of 11 April 2017 it holds an IMDB rating of 6.2/10.
In the United States and Canada, The Birth of a Nation was projected to gross around $10 million in its opening weekend. It went on to open to $7.1 million, finishing 6th at the box office. African-Americans made up 60% of the first weekend audience. In its second weekend the film dropped 61.2%, grossing just $2.7 million and finishing 10th at the box office.
Despite making back nearly twice its budget, the film was considered a financial disappointment. In assessing the mediocre opening weekend of The Birth of a Nation, The Washington Post reported, "While some moviegoers may have been put off by the controversy, middling reviews for the movie itself probably didn’t help. Meanwhile, historic dramas can be a hard sell: It's possible a lot of multiplex visitors just plain weren't interested." Adding to the film's problems, "Several prominent feminists decried Parker's defiant response to the [rape] scandal and pledged to boycott the film, which drew a protest vigil at Hollywood's ArcLight Cinemas."
Gabrielle Union, one of the main stars of the film, told Essence that she understood why some film-goers were avoiding the film and stated that she, as a rape survivor, could not sell it to anyone who chose to avoid the film due to the controversy. She said, "As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult. I don’t want to put myself above anyone's pain or triggers. Every victim or survivor, I believe you. I support you. I support you if you don't want to see the film. I absolutely understand and respect that. I can't sell the film."
On review website Rotten Tomatoes, the film has an approval rating of 71% based on 216 reviews, with an average rating of 6.7/10. The site's critical consensus reads, "The Birth of a Nation overpowers its narrative flaws and uneven execution through sheer conviction, rising on Nate Parker's assured direction and the strength of its vital message." Metacritic gave the film a normalized score of 69 out of 100, based on 49 critics, indicating "generally favorable reviews". Audiences polled by CinemaScore gave the film an average grade of "A" on an A+ to F scale.
Justin Chang at Variety compared The Birth of a Nation to 12 Years a Slave, saying: "Parker's more conventionally told but still searingly impressive debut feature pushes the conversation further still: A biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror, it builds to a brutal finale that will stir deep emotion and inevitable unease." He concluded, "The Birth of a Nation exists to provoke a serious debate about the necessity and limitations of empathy, the morality of retaliatory violence, and the ongoing black struggle for justice and equality in this country. It earns that debate and then some."
The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy said, "The film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also underlining the religious underpinnings of Turner's justifications for his assaults on slaveholders." He added, "The film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance as to not at all be considered a missed opportunity; far more of the essentials made it into the film than not, its makers' dedication and minute attention are constantly felt and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that."
Michael Phillips of the Chicago Tribune was critical of Parker's direction, saying, "one of the drawbacks, ironically, is Parker's own performance. Even the rape victims of the screenplay have a hard time getting their fair share of the screen time; everything in the story, by design, keeps the focus and the anguished close-ups strictly on Parker. He's a good actor, but not much of a director; the visual style and approach of The Birth of a Nation tries a little of everything, and often too much of everything."
In its October 10 issue, The New Yorker ran two reviews, "The Cinematic Merits and Flaws of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation", by Richard Brody, and "The Birth of a Nation Isn't Worth Defending", by Vinson Cunningham.