Birth of a Nation director Nate Parker evaded questions about his 1999 rape charge during a press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival on Sunday, telling reporters he didn’t want to “hijack” the event with his personal history.
“This is a forum for the film, this is a forum for the other people that are sitting on this stage,” Parker said when asked how viewers can attempt separate the art from the artist when the 17-year-old rape allegation has already overshadowed the film, about the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in Virginia in 1831. At the press conference, moderated by Essence‘s Cori Murray, Parker was joined by co-stars Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Aunjanue Ellis.
The Birth of a Nation sparked a bidding war at Sundance, where Fox Searchlight bought the global rights to the film for a record $17.5 million. But Parker has since been dodging questions about the 17-year-old sexual assault allegations. (Parker and his roommate Jean McGianni Celestin were accused of raping a fellow student at Penn State while they were sophomores; he was acquitted, but Celestin, who has a story credit on Birth of a Nation, was convicted. The accuser, who has not been named, committed suicide in 2012.)
When New York Times reporter Cara Buckley asked Parker why he has not apologized to the victim’s family, and invited him to rectify that at the press conference, Parker quickly brushed off the question, saying there were “over 400 people involved in this project.” “It’s not mine, it doesn’t belong to me,” he said. “I don’t want to hijack this.”
Gabrielle Union, who has a small, wordless part in the film as a slave who is raped by a white man (the film doesn’t actually show the sexual assault), was asked about the response she’s received to her L.A. Times op-ed, in which the rape survivor expressed “stomach-churning confusion” over the controversy. “As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly,” she wrote in early September.
“Tremendous is not a big enough word,” Union said of the response to the op-ed among the film community. “I’ve heard from people I didn’t think knew I existed.” Earlier at the press conference, Union said she had always wanted to be involved somehow in a film about Nat Turner: “I don’t care if I’m craft service or grip.” She also said her character initially had lines in the script, but “I thought it was more powerful for her to be symbolic of the voicelessness and powerlessness that sexual violence leaves us with.”
Union said that 90 percent of Hollywood’s reaction to her outspokenness on the subject of Parker’s rape allegations has been positive. “Five percent feels I threw Nate under the bus, and 5 percent feels I’m a rape apologist.” She added, “Every time I talk about sexual violence I want to puke,” but had made the decision years ago to speak out about her own experience of rape, at age 19. “I decided I was going to use my celebrity, my platform, to talk about the horrors of sexual violence.”
The festival declined to host a press event for The Birth of a Nation; Sunday’s event was organized by Fox Searchlight. When the film premiered here on Friday, the screening was followed by a very brief Q&A and did not include a red carpet beforehand. 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.