In what can only be called an overly prepared press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, director Nate Parker and the cast of “The Birth of a Nation” did everything to get audiences to forget all about his past rape allegations. Not to mention the fact that his answers to this part of his personal history hasn’t really made people feel more comfortable about him either.
It’s an interesting strategy to make sure the distributors and studios make their bundle of money. It sounds cynical, yes, but Parker hasn’t made a very good case for himself. It shouldn’t always matter about the person and their art, but at the end of the day, it does. If people flock out to see the movie and it brings in a ton of dough as they hope, it furthers his career.
I know people will argue that this is a film of importance, but why attempt to give him a free pass just because of that. If he had made a rom-com, these same people would be sure to tell everyone not to see the film. It seems that the distributor would have Parker step aside when promoting the film as he only serves as a reminder of the problems that exist for women today.
This is the frustration I have with ultra liberal people because they tend to be just as hypocritical as the ultra right side. They’ll cry free speech in one instance when it serves their purpose, but then quickly try to shut someone up who says something they don’t like. They’ll pull out their PC card as their defense. You can’t have it both ways. If you’re going to claim strong morals and principles, they have to be used at all times, not just when it’s convenient.
During the panel Parker and the cast of “The Birth of a Nation” argued for focusing on their film and not on the years-old rape allegation against Parker that has enveloped the film in a scandal from his past.
Parker was facing a roomful of press for the first time since the details of a 1999 rape allegation against Parker surfaced. But Parker used the opportunity not to address questions over the case, but to deflect them. Though Parker directed, wrote, produced and stars as Turner in the film, he urged “The Birth of a Nation” to be viewed outside of himself.
“I’ve addressed it , nd I’m sure in different forums I’ll address it more. The reality is no one person makes a film,” said Parker, noting that hundreds worked on the film. “I would encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person.”
Parker bounded cheerfully into the press conference, exclaiming “Good morning!” and taking a seat at the end of a long table of cast members. The much-watched event was orchestrated to take the spotlight off Parker’s past. A question wasn’t taken from the media until about 40 minutes in. It was nearly an hour in that Parker took a question directly about the incident.
When he did, Parker declined to address whether he should have apologized to the now deceased rape victim’s family. He also didn’t address a question about whether he feels he’s been more scrutinized than others in Hollywood.
“This is a forum for the film,” said Parker. “This is a forum for the other people sitting on this stage.”
He did say he believes Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, is moving ahead with a planned promotional tour to churches and college campuses before the movie’s October release. “From what I understand we’re still moving forward with everything,” Parker said.
“The Birth of a Nation” first debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival at the same time the “OscarsSoWhite” backlash was raging. Parker’s film immediately sparked widespread Oscar expectations and a bidding war among distributors. Fox Searchlight, an Academy Awards regular, landed it for a festival record $17.5 million, with the assurance of a nation-wide release.
But the newfound attention on Parker put a spotlight on a rape case from when he was a sophomore and wrestler at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted, though his college roommate, Jean Celestin (who helped create “The Birth of a Nation”) was initially found guilty of sexual assault. That conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial.
Parker and Celestin allegedly harassed the accuser on campus. The incident spawned a successful civil lawsuit by the woman against the college. But the accuser, after several previous attempts, committed suicide in 2012. Her brother, identified only as Johnny, told The Hollywood Reporter that the rape case “was obviously that point” she changed.
As the story unfolded, Parker’s contrite comments on the case didn’t help the tailspin “The Birth of a Nation” fell into. Many think its awards chances are irreparably damaged. The American Film Institute recently canceled a scheduled screening of the film.
But the Toronto Film Festival stood by “The Birth of a Nation,” keeping it in its program.
“It’s a powerful film and it tells a hugely important story and the kind of story we don’t see often,” the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview. “I think everyone has to make up their own mind about what connections they draw between the art and the artist. These are not simple questions at all.”
The film’s festival premiere Friday evening was carefully watched, with trade reporters measuring the length of applause afterward (a perhaps moot point considering much of the crowd was made up of the film’s backers).
The cast on Sunday voiced their support for the film, and its relevance to today’s racial discord.
“We are examining an enormous shame in American history, and carrying an enormous amount of shame,” said co-star Colman Domingo. “I just think that until we continue to confront our history there will be no peace. There’s no peace in the streets right now. There’s blood on the streets, and it’s on everyone’s hands because we are not facing our truth.”
The issue of Parker’s past is particularly acute for Gabrielle Union, who also stars in the film. She is herself an outspoken victim of rape who early penned an op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about the allegations against Parker.
“Every time I talk about sexual violence, I want to puke, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to what the people feel who are voiceless,” Union said. “I think we are all creating acknowledgment that we are real, that we exist, that we live among you, that we are your mothers or brothers or sisters or lovers.”
The cast collectively sought to turn the conversation back toward the film and race in America.
“This isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story,” Penelope Ann Miller said. “Most people don’t know the Nat Turner story. And I think it’s an important story to learn about.”