Not a question was asked, not a word was spoken about the old rape case, as Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation got a warm welcome — and a respectfully soft landing — at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night.
“What did Nat Turner’s story mean to you?” Cameron Bailey, the festival’s artistic director, asked Parker, the director and star of the film, in a delicately choreographed Q&A session that followed the first festival screening at the Winter Garden Theater. (There was a second, overlapping showing at the Visa Elgin screening room, in the same building.)
Turner’s story was a chance “to promote the conversation we need to have about race,” answered Parker. But not before he did what directors always do at Toronto, that is, thank Canada for its support, and make a deep bow in the direction of his cast and financiers.
There were roughly 18 actors and producers onstage, so Parker had plenty of backup. The audience applauded, loudly and long. But it was heavily larded with representatives of the many companies — Mandalay, Bron Studios, Tiny Giant, Phantom Four — that had a hand in making the film. They especially applauded the company logos at the end.
If there were any demonstrators outside, they were quiet and nearly invisible. Clearly, the public controversy over rape and sexual assault charges against Parker and his co-creator Jean McGianni Celestin when both were in college in the late 1990s were not enough to stir public hostility here. Parker was acquitted; Celestin, not visibly present here, served time in prison but later had his conviction overturned. In recent weeks, sharp reaction to the charges, and word that the accuser in the rape case had later committed suicide, has overwhelmed the film and its plea for racial justice.
Outside the Winter Garden, the street crowd was a little smaller than usual. The Birth of a Nation has some fine actors, but it lacks the kind of star power that gets the festival crowd going. It takes a George Clooney, a Kristen Stewart or a Madonna to get them howling.
In the Winter Garden balcony, about half the crowd left before the Q&A got started.
Onstage, once the session started, the actress Gabrielle Union — who had written of her consternation over the rape charges — was present, but said nothing. Penelope Ann Miller, however, was effusive in praising Parker for his respectful treatment of cast and crew. “We knew we were doing something special,” she said.
Aja Naomi King, who plays opposite Parker as Nat Turner’s wife in the film, said she had been inspired by her own awakening to the Turner slave rebellion. It was thrilling, she noted, to see “people that look like me standing up.”
Bailey, the moderator, kept it simple, and focused squarely on race. The Winter Garden, he noted, had once been a Vaudeville theater with black-face performances. Parker said he was determined, through the film, to “change the way we think about resistance.”
Another of the many actors onstage, Roger Guenveur Smith, said that Nat Turner, in 1831, had realized that “indeed, black lives do matter.” In all, it was the best that Fox Searchlight, which is releasing the film, could hope from its first major public viewing since the rape controversy erupted in August.