By Piya Sinha-Roy
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - When "The Birth of a Nation" opens in theaters this week, its backers are hoping the film's buzz will finally shift away from the controversy dogging its creator and toward the slavery drama's powerful message about race relations in America.
The film about Nat Turner, a slave who led a rebellion in Virginia in 1831, was once hailed as an awards front-runner but has been overshadowed by headlines about a 17-year-old rape case involving the writer, director, producer and lead actor, Nate Parker, who was acquitted at a 2001 trial.
As Parker has sought to address the rape case in recent weeks, marketing for the film has shifted to promote the relevancy of the little-known story of Turner to today's Black Lives Matters movement.
Television ads shown nationally interweave scenes of slaves running through cotton fields in 1831 with recent news images of protesters, with lips taped and "I Can't Breathe" signs, demonstrating over the killings of unarmed black men by U.S. police.
The stakes are high for studio Fox Searchlight, which bought the movie in the midst of the controversy over lack of diversity in Hollywood that prompted the resurgence earlier this year of #OscarsSoWhite.
But Parker, 36, said he knew right from the start that he wanted to make a film that "changes the conversation around race in this country."
"I feel like this country is more segregated now than it's been in moments in the past, so seeing that a film is actually speaking to that and progressing the conversation, it's inspiring and encouraging," Parker told Reuters.
The film shares the same title as a 1915 movie, widely seen as propaganda for white supremacy group Ku Klux Klan, but Parker's version reclaims "Birth of a Nation" to show the brutality of racism.
Disturbing visuals about race and slavery dominate "The Birth of a Nation."
A white girl plays with a black girl with a noose around her neck in one scene. In another, a family of slaves hang from the branches of a sprawling live oak tree as Nina Simone sings "Strange Fruit." In one of the most jarring scenes, a slave on a hunger strike is force fed after having his teeth chiseled out by his white owners.
"This was our reality and I think it's important that people recognized that this was an everyday thing and a system that was so strong and so fortified that it corrupted everyone that it touched," Parker said.
The cast hopes the film will supplement the teaching about slavery in the United States.
"Slave rebellions happened and there's a weird sort of washing out of this where I never heard about this story as a kid," said Armie Hammer, who plays Turner's slave master.
Filmed in Savannah, Georgia, on the grounds of a real plantation, the cast said they were emotionally affected by the history of the land.
"You walk on that plantation and it's immediate, you feel our people, you feel them like they're sitting right here, you see and feel the pain. It's like a horror movie except this is reality," said Gabrielle Union.
(Editing by Leela de Kretser and Bill Rigby)