Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation gets standing ovation despite rape controversy

TNS Nate Parker portrays Nat Turner in'The Birth of a Nation' which is being released in October amid the fallout from Parker's 1999 rape charges

Birth actor Gabrielle Union, who penned an emotional essay on September 2 about being the victim of rape, was the first person to mention the words “sexual violence” during the press conference. Parker was acquitted of the charges; Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned on account of an ineffective defense.

The first salvo on the subject Sunday came in a question about whether he planned to apologize to the alleged victim’s family.

“Every time I talk about sexual violence, I want to puke, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to what the people feel who are voiceless”, Union said.

Controversy continues to simmer around the movie Birth of a Nation and its director and star, Nate Parker.

While students at Penn State University in 1999, Parker and his Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin, who has a story credit on the film, were accused of allegedly sexual assaulting a fellow student. The accuser committed suicide in 2012 after many previous attempts.

The film, out in US theaters on October 7, debuted in Toronto on Friday night at a red carpet premiere, where no video cameras were allowed and security was tight around the venue. “There are 400-plus people that worked on this film”, Parker says. “I would encourage everyone to remember that personal life aside, I’m just one person. It’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable, awkward, heated conversations, but that’s the only way we can hope to have evolution and hope to have behavioural shifts, which is what Nat Turner [the main character in Birth of a Nation] was all about”. “I think we’re all craving acknowledgment that we’re real, that we exist, that we live among you, that we are your mothers, your brothers, your sisters, your lovers”.

“This isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story”, Miller said. “This film has been a labour of love for us and we are desperately proud to present it to you”, Parker told the crowd.

Throughout the gathering, Parker’s cast united to make the case for why those troubled by their director’s past should still see the film.

Sunday’s press conference wrapped with no definitive word from Parker about his history, how he thinks it may or may not affect the film’s performance, or anything addressing what most members of the film world are debating back and forth as the crucial fall film season looms.

Both the questions and the answers at the 9 p.m. show tended to ramble – one audience member took at least three minutes to ask, in essence, “What can white people do to help support people of color?” and in return, she got a meandering and not entirely relevant response from Birth co-star Armie Hammer.

The 36-year-old said, “This is a forum for the film, for the other people sitting here on this stage”.

“Healing comes with honest conversation about our past”. Still, the film received a standing ovation at Friday’s premiere, suggesting audiences may not have such a hard time separating the art from the artist after all. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and as we move forward with this film, we want to deal with injustice everywhere, wherever it stands”. I do not own it.