The most powerful voices on stage at The Birth Of A Nation press conference Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival—an event that made headlines simply for the fact that it was taking place—were the women. The likes of Gabrielle Union, Aunjanue Ellis, and Penelope Ann Miller were the strongest advocates for the importance of the film—even after the past rape allegation against its writer, director, and star Nate Parker was brought up.
That didn’t come, however, until about 23 minutes into the talk, which lasted over an hour. For the first part of the event the cast on stage mused on the impact of telling the story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, their characters, and the process of making the film. Jackie Earl Haley effusively praised Parker’s directorial abilities.
When the sexual assault case—in which Parker was acquitted—was finally mentioned, the moderator, Essence’s Cori Murray, asked the director how he and the cast will “motivate” people resistant to seeing the film now to “support it.” He diverted attention away from himself. “The reality is there’s no one person that makes a film,” he said. The spoke about the contributions made by his fellow actors, seven of whom sat on stage with him, and the others that worked on the movie. He noted that the stars were not paid very much—they all worked for scale—and that he accepted and welcomed all contributions, even from crew members. “There were many ideas that made it to screen that weren’t my own,” he said.
“I do think the legacy of Nat Turner is important to all of us,” he later added. “He was an American hero and what he sacrificed. I feel it’s equally important that everyone that’s on this stage and everyone that has sweat and bled and cried for this film have an opportunity to get any reward that will come to them for their work.”
Other participants didn’t jump to defend Parker personally, but to direct attention to the work and its mission. “To me, this isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story,” said Miller, who plays the mother of slave owner Sam Turner (Armie Hammer). Union declared: “We’ve always said from the very very beginning we are not creating a movie we are creating a movement.” She continued: “That movement is inclusive. That movement includes the people who fight back against sexual violence.” Ellis, who portrays Turner’s mother, made the distinction between art and the artist, and told audiences to carry their “apprehension” with them to theaters.
Parker otherwise mostly avoided inquiries about the fallout from the journalists gathered. The New York Times’s Cara Buckley inquired about why he hasn’t apologized to the victim and her family and “would [he] now.” Parker skirted the question. “This is a forum for the film,” he responded. “This is a forum for the other people that are sitting on this stage. It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It does not belong to me. I definitely don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.” He did confirm that a tour of churches and college campuses planned in conjunction with the film was still going to take place. However, did not explicitly address whether he would use the platform to also discuss sexual violence.
Union, however, did onstage, describing her conviction to speak on the issue following her own assault. She said she has been largely embraced by Hollywood following her Los Angeles Times opinion piece about her reaction to the controversy, even telling reporters about the outpouring of support she got at a party she attended last night from the likes of Universal Pictures chairman Donna Langley. “Every time I talk about sexual violence I want to puke,” she said. “There’s never been a time in the last 23 years where I’ve not wanted to vomit, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to being a voice to people who feel absolutely voiceless and powerless.”
The Birth Of A Nation screenings on Friday in Toronto were reportedly met with standing ovations. It is due out in theaters October 7.