Sunday morning at the Toronto Film Festival, embattled Birth of a Nation filmmaker Nate Parker danced around the controversy over his 17-year-old rape case by using his cast and crew as a shield: “This is a forum for the film, for other people sitting on this stage,” he said. “It’s not mine. It doesn’t belong to me. I don’t want to hijack it with my personal life.”
Ownership of the critically acclaimed Nat Turner biopic has been a thorny issue in recent months for Parker and Fox Searchlight, which bought the buzzy The Birth of a Nation in a pricey acquisition at Sundance with eyes on the Academy Awards—only to find the film’s awards hopes and commercial prospects jeopardized by the resurfacing of the sexual assault Parker was accused and acquitted of nearly two decades ago as a college student.
Parker’s tone-deaf comments on the rape case, and the recent revelations of his accuser’s eventual suicide, have only dug a deeper hole for the writer, director, producer, and star who dazzled Park City with the passion project in January, and whose fingerprints are all over The Birth of a Nation.
But in Toronto, seated on the far end of a dais conspicuously far away from actress Gabrielle Union, the only cast member to publicly address and call out Parker in a poignant op-ed, the writer, director, producer, and star filibustered and deflected, imploring the public to consider the 400 other people who worked on the film—everyone from craft services to the extras.
“Sometimes a grip or gaffer had the best idea and that’s what we went with,” he said. “I do think it’s important to recognize that no one person does anything important on their own.”
Co-stars Coleman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Penelope Ann Miller, and Jackie Earle Haley also stayed on message, emphasizing that Birth of a Nation is an important piece of art that confronts the “stain” of American history in a necessary and still-urgent way.
“To me this isn’t the Nate Parker story,” said Miller. “This is the Nat Turner story. I would say that most people don’t know the Nat Turner story. I didn’t know the Nat Turner story. And I think it’s an important story to know about.”
Parker’s cause was bolstered by cast members who urged those intent on boycotting the film to separate the art from the artist. “There is the art and there is the artist, and they are two different things,” declared Ellis.
Union compared watching Birth of a Nation to an act of patriotism and defiance, referring to Colin Kaepernick’s controversial National Anthem protest. “Brandon Marshall took a knee on Thursday and lost his endorsements on Friday, and we wonder why there is a need to rewrite history,” she said. Union argued that the film’s message of rebellion is an all-inclusive movement that advocates and allies of any marginalized group should join, and compared the treatment of Ryan Lochte for acting like a child to the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
She admitted she still feels conflicted about Parker and the film. “Part of me feels I threw Nate under the bus, and part of me feels like I’m a rape apologist.”
Parker, meanwhile, said he is unaware of whether Fox Searchlight will change their release and promotion plans due to the controversy. After speaking at length about the importance of remembering history and moral accountability as it pertains to Turner’s story, he was asked by Cara Buckley of The New York Times if he would apologize to his own late accuser and her family for what happened 17 years ago. He evaded the direct query, delivered the aforementioned protestation about not wanting to hijack the forum, and thanked the film festival for having him.