Headlines for the opening box office numbers to Nate Parker’s polarizing Birth Of A Nation film have painted it as an abject failure using adjectives like “Falters,” “Falls Flat” and being “Steam rolled by” the likes of Girl on the Train. However you may feel about the controversy surrounding Nate Parker’s 1999 rape trial and acquittal–and his reaction to it since–the initial performance of his film must be placed in its proper context.
The R-rated biopic, which follows Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, opened in 2,100 theaters earning $7.1 million. The drama received early buzz when it was bought by Fox Searchlight at Sundance Film Festival for a record-breaking $17.5 million and was flagged as a major Oscar contender. While headlines today forecast doom and gloom, reports on Friday from BoxofficeMojo painted a more realistic picture:
“Fox Searchlight’s The Birth of a Nation is also right on track to match expectations. The Oscar hopeful earned an estimated $2.6 million on Friday and is looking at a $7.5-8 million three-day opening. The film also performed just as well with opening day audiences as it did with critics, scoring an “A” CinemaScore…If anything, a weekend around $9 million would seem to be the ceiling and $6 million something of a worst case scenario.”
Why? Because that is traditionally how these films perform regardless of who is attached to them.
In 2013 the eventual Oscar Winning 12 Years A Slave opened to $923,715 dollars in a limited run of 19 theaters. The wider open in 1,144 theaters the following week grossed $6,675, 731, a $5,835 average. It was directed by Steve McQueen and starred Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup, a free Black man who was sold into slavery for 12 years. It was rated R with a budget of $20 Million. It eventually grossed $56 Million domestically and $131 Million world wide thanks to strong Oscar buzz.
Earlier that year Gugu Mbatha-Raw starred in Amma Asante’s Belle, about a free biracial woman living in the shadow of slavery in 1779. Her mother was a slave who conceived her with a British Royal Naval Officer. Despite positive reviews from fans and critics, it opened to $106,578 in 4 theaters, a $26, 645 average. It eventually grossed $10,726,630 and was rated PG.
Conversely, 2016’s Free State Of Jones, starred Matthew McConaughy as a white man rebelling against the confederacy. It also starred Gugu Mbatha-Raw and Mahershala Ali and opened with $7.5 Million across 2,815 theaters in June, a $2,690 average, and has grossed 20.8 Million, less than half or its $50 Million budget. It is also rated R. It was a blow to its indie distributor STX Entertainment for sure, but was not painted with the broad brush of defeat that is being applied to Birth.
So Birth of A Nation’s opening box office matches comparable films with similar themes that were both loved and hated by critics. How it performs moving forward is yet to be seen, but one should question anyone on either side of the Nate Parker debate trying to portray the opening weekend box office as either a failure, a falling domino that signals the death of Black film, or an indictment of Parker. Because the numbers don’t support that.