Executives at Fox Searchlight must have drawn sighs of relief when they heard the rapturous applause that greeted closing credits for “The Birth of a Nation” Friday night at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film had three screenings —public screenings at 8pm and 9pm, and an 8:45pm screening for those attending the movie’s press junket, which Fox Searchlight is holding concurrently with the festival. The screenings held scant evidence of the scandal and criticism faced in the last month by the film’s director, writer, and star, Nate Parker.
This was the film’s first festival screening since Sundance, where Searchlight bought the film for $17.5 million in a fierce bidding war. More recently, of course, Parker has been fighting another battle, this one associated with rape charges and a trial he faced as a student at Penn State.
This created an unexpected set of challenges for Searchlight’s release strategy, which begins October 17 with plans for full-throttle Oscar campaign to follow. For the last month, the film has been consumed by the kind of attention that puts the idea of “there’s no such thing as bad publicity” to a pneumatic test.
From interviews with Parker denounced for their self-absorption, to the revelation that the woman who prosecuted him had committed suicide, to a public backlash that included innumerable critical essays and Academy members who said they wouldn’t even see the film, it seemed like the movie could drown in a tsunami of negative attention.
Searchlight remained stalwart, saying that their plans were unchanged. However, the question remained how Toronto — the first major audience to screen the film since January — would respond. As it turned out, TIFF responded as if the reports had never happened.
At both the 8pm and 9pm screenings at the Elgin and Winter Garden Theatres, TIFF Artistic Director Cameron Bailey introduced the film by noting the theater was built in 1913 as vaudeville houses that often hosted minstrel acts in blackface. “This is a beautiful place with a painful history,” he said, adding that the theater had just hosted the filmmaking debut of a Nigerian woman. “It’s come a long way since 1913.” He then introduced Parker, his cast and the producers, all of whom were met with enthusiastic applause and cheers.
When the cast returned to the stage after the screening for the Q&A, the clapping and cheering began again, only louder and with standing ovations that continued for more than two minutes. “We have to leave some time for the Q&A,” Bailey said.
Parker spoke to the cast’s talent, and to the power of being able to tell the story of Nat Turner, who led a 48-hour slave rebellion not far from where the filmmaker grew up in Virginia.
“I wish I had known this story more clearly when I was in high school,” said Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife in the film. “To see people who look like me, rising up to fight for what they believe in, fighting for their own justice — it would have meant everything to me.”
“He was so respectful to all of us,” said Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Elizabeth Turner, the slaveowner’s wife who helps teach Nat to read as a child. “From the PAs to the gaffers to the costume department — it was just the gratitude that he showed everybody and it made everybody want to work harder.”
Prior to the screening, certain audience members said they thought the controversy surrounding Parker might impact how people received the film. “There’s some drama,” said 23-year-old Toronto native Chrissy Angelopoulos. “It’s hard to not have a bias knowing what we know now.” Still, several members of the audience said after the show that they weren’t aware of any controversy, and one woman who had read about Parker’s rape case said she didn’t let it interfere with her viewing experience.
Though actress Gabrielle Union penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times saying she “cannot take these allegations lightly,” being a rape survivor herself, after the 9pm screening Friday, she made a point to sing Parker’s praises.
“If you are wondering about Colin Kaepernick and his stand for equality and whether he’s on the right side of history, there’s nothing more patriotic than resistance,” she said. “That is the story of Nat Turner and that’s why we’re all on the stage.”