As Nate Parker’s history of alleged sexual assault remains a divisive topic in Hollywood, it’s become abundantly clear that the “Birth of a Nation” cast has banded together to support the 36-year-old director. During an hourlong news conference at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday, the movie’s performers spoke ardently of the tale’s importance beyond Parker’s personal reproach.
Parker, who was acquitted of having raped a fellow Penn State student 17 years ago, dodged most direct questions about the allegations on Sunday. The case resurfaced in August, seven months after Fox Searchlight bought distribution rights to “The Birth of a Nation” in a record-high Sundance bid. Parker and the studio have entered damage-control mode over the past few weeks. At the news conference, Parker, who entered the room with an emphatic “good morning,” thanked each journalist for his or her question, then spun his answers so as not to expressly mention the allegations.
Essence magazine’s Cori Murray moderated the news conference. Murray used the first 24 minutes to pose a question about the production and significance of “Birth” to each cast member, including Parker, who plays the lead, early-1800s slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley spoke of social justice and the need to confront America’s troubled history. Then, the discussion turned to the elephant in the room.
When asked how he expects audiences to support the film, Parker accentuated his desire to secure the recognition his cast and crew deserve for their efforts. He said each actor worked for scale and every crew member was given equal weight in shaping the finished product, an examination of America’s inequities. In not outright referencing his rape accusations, Parker implied this particular story ― effectively scrubbed from textbooks, according to the cast ― is more important than the baggage of the artist who brought it to life.
But after the cast members waxed passionate about the need to separate the art and the artist, New York Times reporter Cara Buckley asked whether Parker felt he should apologize to his alleged rape victim, who took her own life in 2012. (Parker, who paused his acting career in 2013 while securing funding for “Birth,” has yet to issue a formal public apology.)
“I’ve addressed this a few times, and I’m sure I’ll address it again,” he said. “This is a forum for the film. This is a forum for the other people that are sitting on the stage. It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It does not belong to me, so I definitely don’t want to hijack this movie. I do want to make sure we are honoring this film.”
This response came two days after the festival’s first “Birth of a Nation” screening, held at a 1,000-seat theater, elicited a standing ovation ― something that doesn’t often occur at the Toronto gala. The question, it seems, is whether the media’s attention to Parker’s rape accusations hold weight with everyday moviegoers. Parker said at the press conference that, while he can’t speak on behalf of Fox Searchlight’s publicity strategy, the speaking tour he planned to mount at colleges and churches will continue. He ignored the more vital part of that reporter’s question: Will he use the tour as a platform to discuss his own history with assault on college campuses?
The news conference ended with journalists still clambering to pose questions, so it’ll be interesting to see how the rest of the publicity campaign unfolds ahead of the movie’s Oct. 7 theatrical release. On Saturday, a junket interview with CBC News was terminated when the reporter asked Parker whether Fox Searchlight had altered its strategy in the wake of the controversy. If anything, the cast seems even more galvanized in emphasizing the value of the Nat Turner story as it is being depicted in “Birth.
“We’ve always said, from the very beginning, we’re not creating a movie ― we’re creating a movement,” Gabrielle Union, a rape survivor, said earlier in the conference, echoing one of the cast’s resounding sentiments. “And this movement is not single-focused ... Nat Turner was rooted in a place of faith that helps to subjugate his people and the people who looked like him ... Once he knew better, he did better. That’s what the movie is trying to inspire.”
Watch the trailer for “Birth of a Nation” below.