Birth of a Nation: Nate Parker answers to the press
After days of promoting his movie The Birth of a Nation at public screenings during the Toronto International Film Festival, director and star Nate Parker finally addressed journalists on Sunday, his first discussion in front of the media since his 1999 rape case resurfaced in the news last month.
Asked by New York Times reporter Cara Buckley why he hadn’t apologized to the alleged victim, who died by suicide in 2012, and her family, and if he wanted to now, Parker said, “I’ve addressed this a few times, and I’m sure I’ll address it in different forums. But this is a forum for the film [and] 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. So I definitely don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.”
Parker was first questioned about the 1999 rape case some 23 minutes into the 70-minute press conference — specifically what he would say to people who won’t see the film because of the allegations. “I would say, you know I’ve addressed it, I’m sure in future forums I’ll address it more,” Parker, who plays Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation, said. “There is no one person that makes a film. Over 400 people made this film. We were gone for almost 15 weeks. I would encourage everyone to remember that I’m just one person and the way we ran our set, there was no hierarchy. Many ideas made it to screen that weren’t my own.”
He added, the “legacy of Nat Turner does have healing powers. Everyone who has sweat and bled and cried for this film should be rewarded. Many people who kept going above and beyond. There were people who were running with sandbags and they weren’t part of the crew. It’s important to recognize that no one perks does anything important on their own.”
“This isn’t the Nate Parker story. This is the Nat Turner story,” added costar Penelope Ann Miller. Stars Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, and Jackie Earle Haley were also in attendance.
“We are not creating a movie, we’re creating a movement,” Union, who wrote a widely circulated op-ed about Parker’s rape trial, said. “That movement is inclusive. It includes people who fight back against sexual violence. Any issue you have that is addressing an oppressive institution, this movie is for you too. A lot of heated conversation is the only way to have evolution. Nat Turner was rooted in a place of faith that helped to subjugate and oppress his people. But once he knew better, he did better. We implore you to join with us to create change. … If you are a decent human being who wants to take part in a film, I hope you don’t sit us out.”
Her words were echoed by Ellis. “What I would say to anyone who is going to stay home is come to the theater with your apprehension,” she said. “We need our art to tell us who we are. The system of education is telling us who we are not. This movie is the song we are singing in our heat. We need to communicate because we are being beaten by a baton.”
Parker, 36, was accused of allegedly sexually assaulting a woman at Penn State University in 1999 with his Birth of a Nation collaborator Jean Celestin, who has a story credit on the film. The actor was acquitted of the charges in 2001; Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned because he received an ineffective defense. Celestin didn’t receive a new trial.
When first asked about the case in an interview with Variety last month, Parker said, “17 years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life. It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is — I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
Those comments came before news of the alleged victim’s death by suicide broke, after which Parker wrote a lengthy Facebook post expressing his “profound sorrow” over her death.
Just recently, however, he spoke to Ebony magazine after the Merge Summit in Los Angeles about his definition of consent as a 19-year old college student and his intent to now be a leader on the issue of affirmative consent. Parker also said his initial reaction to questions about the trial came from a “standpoint of ignorance.”
“I didn’t know. I was acting as if I was the victim, and that’s wrong. I was acting as if I was the victim because I felt like, my only thought was I’m innocent and everyone needs to know. I didn’t even think for a second about her, not even for a second,” he said.
— Additional reporting by Christopher Rosen