TORONTO — Nate Parker, the director, lead actor, and screenwriter of the forthcoming critically acclaimed historical drama The Birth of a Nation, took the stage at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night in his first major public appearance since the 1999 rape allegations against him re-emerged, igniting a firestorm in Hollywood. And yet, no one asked him about them.
Instead, Parker got a one-and-a-half-minute standing ovation following the premiere, as 18 of his Birth of a Nation co-stars and crew like Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller, Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, and Jackie Earle Haley lined the stage beside him.
TIFF artistic director and programmer Cameron Bailey posed questions to Parker and the cast and crew in a post-screening Q&A about the origins of the project and about Parker's film direction in his dramatic retelling of the Nat Turner–led Virginia slave rebellion in 1831. He did not mention the alleged crimes and court cases that have dominated the headlines as of late.
At the Sundance Film Festival in January, Fox Searchlight bought The Birth of a Nation for a record-breaking $17.5 million — the highest sum for any film sold at that fest. While the sexual assault allegations against Parker and his friend Jean Celestin (who helped conceive The Birth of a Nation) from 1999 were public at the time, they were not widely known until last month. Parker decided to speak with Variety and Deadline about the allegations in mid-August in an effort to gain control of the inevitable news, causing a re-emergence of facts about the case — most startlingly, that Parker and Celestin’s accuser killed herself in 2012.
The 36-year-old filmmaker maintained his innocence in that first pair of interviews, then posted his feelings upon learning of the alleged victim’s death to Facebook. He also granted a new interview to Ebony, admitting to “toxic masculinity” in retrospect of his time at Penn State, where the alleged crimes took place.
In the weeks that have followed, Fox Searchlight and Parker have tried to move forward toward the planned Oct. 7 theatrical release date of The Birth of a Nation.
At TIFF, Parker expressed gratitude to the audience in attendance, and highlighted the film's emphasis on its past and present context. “This was a story I felt historically could really promote the type of healing that we need around race,” Parker said.
He also spoke openly about his Christian faith and the film's religious angle as it relates to Turner (who was a preacher), tradition, and skin color. "I go to what some might call a black church… Why is it that we talk about this faithful, sacrificial, loving God and this Jesus, but we can’t even worship in the same space?" he wondered aloud. Parker said his film was a way to explore the "cognitive dissonance" of unifying faiths but not races. "I haven’t been to heaven. But I don’t suspect there’s not a black heaven and a white heaven," he said with a laugh.
As previously reported, Parker is screening his film at colleges and churches leading up to and after the wide release of the film next month.
King told the audience she was inspired by the subject of the film, by seeing "people who look like me standing up for themselves, rising up to fight [for] what they believe in." Actor Roger Guenveur Smith said that Turner's story was "not an anomaly" and all slave rebellions were a "movement of liberation that continue to this day... that, indeed, black lives do matter."
Union, however, did not comment during the Q&A. The actor, who is a rape survivor, wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times earlier this month mentioning her rape and expressing her deeply mixed feelings about Parker and his case; she also wrote about her character in the movie, who is raped.
Two audience members were granted an opportunity to ask the cast and crew questions after the TIFF screening: One asked about Turner's enduring legacy, another complimented Parker on the film. Parker did not speak with reporters on the red carpet earlier in the evening.
The Birth of a Nation will be screened three more times before the end of the festival on Sept. 18. Parker and his cast are also scheduled to be on hand for a press conference on Sunday morning.