No apologies. Asked whether he should have apologized for a claimed sexual assault of which he was acquitted in 2001, Nate Parker told assembled reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival that this wasn’t the time or place to deal with it.
“This is a forum for the film,” said Parker. “It is not mine, it does not belong to me.”
Overall, Parker and his fellow-cast members from The Birth Of A Nation hammered that theme, again and again, as they spoke before perhaps a hundred reporters in a session at the Fairmont Hotel. The conference wasn’t associated with the festival, but followed the usual TIFF format: A moderator, Cori Murray of Essence magazine, chewed up time with empathetic questions, leaving just a few minutes for queries from the floor.
Murray’s only brush with the rape controversy was to ask Parker whether his acquittal might lead people to judge the movie, with its plea for racial justice, before they see it. Parker side-stepped, replying instead with a long disquisition about the 400 or so people who worked on The Birth Of A Nation, often for little pay. Even the grips and gaffers got their due. “Everyone felt that they were involved,” said Parker. But his only reaction to the rape controversy was to say: “I’ve addressed it,” and “I’ll address it more.”
But Murray’s question triggered a passionate outpouring from actors who were determined to make it clear that they, not just the writer-producer-actor-director Parker, had made the movie. “This isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story,” said Penelope Ann Miller, who played a slave-owner in the movie.
“We own the film, it’s our film,” said Colman Domingo, who said the picture belong to the entire cast and crew, as advocates for social justice.
Gabrille Union, who had written a Los Angeles Times op-ed about her consternation over the Parker charges, went even further. “We’re not creating a movie, we’re creating a movement,” she said, claiming the speaks for everyone who has suffered every kind of injustice, including veterans who don’t get adequate health care, people who need mental care, and victims of “trans-violence.”
Rarely has so much obligation arrived with a movie—someone on the cast urged the reporters to buy tickets and join the movement. But Parker declined to be tagged with responsibility for an act of which he had been acquitted (though one questioner, Cara Buckley of the New York Times, referred to his accuser, who later committed suicide, as a “victim”).
One reporter asked whether Hollywood had a double standard when it comes to asking who is to be held accountable for past transgressions: It was a pointed question, in that the cast repeatedly spoke of America’s need to atone for the sins of slavery and a racist past. Parker simply said that he would stick to making films that address wrongs in the big sense. “I’m going to say in that lane,” he said. “I’m a filmmaker, you guys are journalists.”
Overall, the press conference was an awkward affair. It started late, and Murray spent most of the session asking questions designed to underscore the movie’s importance. “Beautiful,” she said at one point, as Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife Cherry, described how she found a tiny historical snipped that confirmed the existence of a real-life wife, and mentioned that Turner’s papers had been beaten out of her.
Parker was vague when asked whether he planned to proceed with a college tour that Fox Searchlight had scheduled before the old rape case resurfaced in August. “I can’t speak for Fox,” he said. But, he added, “from what I understand, we’re going forward.”
Sunday’s press session followed screenings at which The Birth Of A Nation, which had its premiere in January at the Sundance Film Festival, re-emerged to a respectfully warm welcome at Toronto. But the audience reception was clearly not warm enough to reassure a cast that used every opportunity on Sunday to insist that people had a duty to view the film, both as an educational moment, and a call to social change.
“This nation is built on white supremacy, it is built on white supremacy,” said Aunjanue Ellis, apparently forgetting for a moment that she was not in the United States. But she quickly caught herself: “Slavery happened in Canada, so hello, Canada,” she added.
Union, who was herself a rape victim, came the closest to a direct confrontation with the controversy that for weeks has diverted attention to the film. Asked about the reaction to her op-ed piece, which voiced concerns about the old case, but made no accusations against Parker, she said most reaction had been positive, though “five percent feels I threw Nate under the bus, and five percent feels I’m a rape apologist.”
She added: “I invite those two five percents to talk to each other.”