There was a large elephant in the room throughout the press conference for “The Birth of a Nation” on Sunday during the Toronto International Film Festival, and while many members of the cast made impassioned and moving speeches, some of which acknowledged the rape charges and trial writer-director-star Nate Parker faced as a student at Penn State, Parker didn’t directly address several questions put to him about his personal history.
“I would just say I’ve addressed it, and I’m sure in future forums I will address it more,” Parker said. “There were more than 400 people involved in this project. I would just encourage everyone to remember that, personal life aside, I’m just one person.” Reporters in the room continued to press Parker, including by asking if he regretted not apologizing to the accuser in his sexual assault case, but he avoided the issue. “I have addressed this a few times and I’m sure I’ll address it in different forums,” Parker said. “This is a forum for the film and for other people sitting on the stage. I don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.”
In the film, Parker plays the lead role of Nat Turner, who led a 48-hour slave rebellion roughly 40 miles from where the filmmaker grew up in Virginia.
Actress Penelope Ann Miller, who plays Elizabeth Turner, a slaveowner’s wife who helps teach Nat to read as a child, urged people to separate the art from the artist and focus on the under-told story of Nat Turner’s rebellion. “This isn’t the Nate Parker story. This is the Nat Turner story,” Miller said. “Most people don’t know the Nat Turner story, and I think it’s an important story to learn about.”
Aunjanue Ellis, who played Nat Turner’s mother Nancy, added that stories about Nat Turner have been largely erased from history books. “In places like Mississippi and Texas, they explicitly take out stories about Nat Turner,” Ellis said. “They call slaves ‘workers.’ They do this explicitly because they don’t want us to know who we are…This movie is a rebellion against that.” Ellis then indirectly touched on the fact that some Academy members have said they won’t even see the film because of the controversy surrounding Parker.
“To anyone who says, ‘I’m going to stay home,’ I’m going to say to them that whatever issue you have [and] whatever apprehension you have, bring that with you to the theater,” Ellis said. “We need our art to tell us who we are, because we are living in a system of education — especially our children — that is telling us who we are not.”
Colman Domingo, who plays a slave named Hark, said that until the U.S. confronts its history, there will be no peace. “There is blood on the streets and it’s on everyone’s hands because we’re not facing our truth,” he said. “We’re not like Germany that has monuments that say ‘never again.’”
Actress Gabrielle Union, who penned an op-ed in the Los Angeles Times in which she mentioned Parker being acquitted of sexual assault and wrote she could not “take these allegations lightly,” being a rape survivor herself, said there were going to be a lot of “awkward” and “uncomfortable” conversations around the film, but that she has embraced similar discussions for 20 years.
“When I was 19, lying on the floor after being raped on the floor of a Payless Shoes store at gunpoint, I decided never again,” Union said. “I decided I was going to use my celebrity [and] my platform anytime anybody stood in front of my face to talk about the horrors of sexual violence and what it does to your soul and your psyche and your family and relationships.”
Union also said “The Birth of a Nation” should spark similarly difficult conversations from audiences that see the movie. “That’s the only way that we can hope to have evolution and hope to have behavioral shifts, which is what Nat Turner was all about,” she said, adding that the changes she was referring to apply to all forms of injustice and oppression today, not just racism and issues around sexual assault. “We implore you to join with us, to join together…We can have one collective moment to create a massive change.”
Parker echoed Union’s comments toward the end of the conference, making one last plea to anyone suffering from any form of oppression. “We want to deal with injustice everywhere,” Parker said. “I will not deter form that path of dealing with injustice and eradicating it wherever it stands.”