TORONTO — Personal questions about past rape allegations were bound to come up when Nate Parker faced the media Sunday for The Birth of a Nation. His strategy: to deflect them and keep the focus on his film.
The 70-minute press conference for the movie, held at the Fairmont Royal York hotel, was packed with journalists wondering how Parker would face the scrutiny.
In the end, Parker said he didn't want to "hijack" the press conference with his personal life.
Birth of a Nation follows the rise of slave-turned-preacher Nat Turner, and the drama was predicted to be a front-runner in the Oscar best picture race after its stunning debut at Sundance Film Festival in January and subsequent sale to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million.
That changed in mid-August, when the film became clouded with revelations that director/star Nate Parker and co-screenwriter Jean Celestin were tried for rape in college more than 15 years ago. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted, but the charge was later overturned. The victim, whose name has not been made public, committed suicide in 2012.
On Sunday, New York Times reporter Cara Buckley referenced issues separating the art from the artist, and asked Parker why he had never apologized to the victim or her family, and if he would now.
“I’ve addressed this a few times,” said Parker circling back to an earlier talking point. He added that the media conference "is a forum for the film and for the other people sitting on this stage. I do not own it. It is not mine. So I don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.”
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.
“This isn’t the Nate Parker story. This is the Nat Turner story,” said actress Penelope Ann Miller. “I would say from most of the interviews I’ve done, most people didn’t know the Nat Turner story. I didn't know about the Nat Turner story. ... And I think it would be a shame if people didn’t get to see this movie and judge for themselves and form their opinion.”
Aunjanue Ellis added: "To anyone thinking of staying home, bring your apprehensions with you to the theater."
Parker noted that 400 people worked on the film. "I would just encourage everyone to remember that, personal life aside, I’m just one person," he said. "I do think it’s important to recognize that no one person does anything important on their own."
Co-star Gabrielle Union took a question on how Birth of a Nation would make more of an impact than previous films focused on slavery. “I’ve never heard anyone say there are too many Holocaust films. There can never be enough Holocaust films," she said. "There can never be enough stories about slavery. ... Oppression is everyone’s problem. And there can never be enough art about oppression and inequality.”
Parker was also asked if he still planned a promotional tour across college campuses for the film, and if he would raise issues about sexual assault.
"From what I understand, we’re still moving forward with everything," said Parker, adding that he had discussed the topic privately with Union.
On Friday, Toronto audiences welcomed Birth of a Nation with a two-minute standing ovation.