Immediately after reading the script for "The Birth of a Nation," Jason Berman knew this was a movie he wanted to produce.
"I read it and was just blown away," says Berman, who grew up in Pikesville and graduated from Friends School of Baltimore. "I thought, 'This is incredible.'"
That was more than two years ago, in June 2014. Since then, Berman and his fellow filmmakers have endured one of the most tumultuous roller-coaster rides in recent cinematic history. When the film, dramatizing a blood-soaked 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia, debuted at January's Sundance Film Festival, it became an instant hit, winning both the audience and grand jury prizes. A bidding frenzy among studios ensued, with Fox Searchlight eventually purchasing the distribution rights for a Sundance record $17.5 million.
"We always felt good about the movie," Berman says. "But I think, ultimately, what ended up happening at Sundance was…We caught lightning in a bottle, there's no doubt about it."
At February's Academy Awards, where the lack of diversity among the nominees led to protests, boycotts and demands to do better, "Birth" was a hot topic. Many were already picking it as the film to beat for next year's best picture Oscar.
But over the summer, events from writer-director-star Nate Parker's past slowed the film's momentum considerably, threatening to overshadow the critical praise it already had received. Parker had been charged with rape in 1999, while a student at Penn State. He was acquitted; his friend (and co-creator of the "Birth of a Nation" script) Jean Celestin was found guilty and sent to prison (the conviction was later overturned). The alleged victim committed suicide in 2012.
Berman, who calls Parker "an absolutely incredible human being — he is extremely gifted, and he is talented," says he hopes people can separate the film from any issues they may have with the filmmaker.
"They are going to see what I believe is a masterpiece," Berman says, "a dramatic masterpiece about a story that is extremely important … and just happens, at this time, to be extremely socially relevant."
For his part, an emotional Parker told Anderson Cooper on "60 Minutes" on Sunday that he had great sympathy for the woman's family. But he declined to apologize for anything he did.
"I don't want to harp on this," he told Cooper, "and I do not want to be disrespectful of [the family] at all, but at some point I have to say it. I was falsely accused."
Berman acknowledges the controversy, and admits to being both excited and nervous about the film's scheduled Friday opening. "The last four to six weeks have obviously been trying," he says. "But it's been about supporting our film and our filmmaker."
He's confident, Berman says, that audiences will embrace "The Birth of a Nation."
"For the people that are able to separate their feelings between the art and the artist," he says, "when they go and see this film, I think they are going to [experience] the same impact as what happened with the audiences at Sundance."