Actress discusses the controversial film, sexual assault, and more in 'Essence' interview
Credit: Dennis Leupold

Birth of a Nation actress Gabrielle Union says she respects the decision of those refusing to see the controversial historical drama after the re-emergence of details about director-star Nate Parker’s 1999 rape trial and acquittal.

In a new interview with Essence — the November cover of which she graces — Union told the magazine that her personal history and beliefs compel her to address the issue head-on.

“As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult,” she said. “I don’t want to put myself above anyone’s pain or triggers. Every victim or survivor, I believe you. I support you. I support you if you don’t want to see the film. I absolutely understand and respect that. I can’t sell the film.”

A dramatization of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia, The Birth of a Nation was initially greeted as a Sundance sensation and an #OscarsSoWhite corrective in January; Fox Searchlight snapped it up for a record $17.5 million. As the film approached its Oct. 7 release, however, news reports and interviews brought renewed attention to Parker’s past.

In 1999, Parker and Penn State roommate Jean Celestin (who has a story credit on Birth) were charged with raping a fellow student while she was unconscious after a night of drinking. Parker was acquitted; Celestin was convicted, but the verdict was later overturned because he received an ineffective defense. Celestin did not receive a new trial. The accuser died by suicide in 2012.

Parker has long maintained his innocence, including in recent interviews on 60 Minutes, Good Morning America, and The Steve Harvey Show.

Union told Essence the film is bigger than just Parker (a sentiment he has also expressed). “This movie has always been about more than one person,” she said, “and for the outspoken feminist advocates and allies who risked a lot to be a part of this project — Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Elllis, Penelope Ann Miller — we are OK if you have to sit this one out, and we’re OK if you don’t, and we understand.”

In recent weeks, Union has spoken powerfully and frankly about her character in Birth of a Nation — a slave named Esther who is raped by a slave owner — and her own sexual assault.

“I decided I was going to use my celebrity, my platform … to talk about the horrors of sexual violence and what it does to your soul and to your psyche and to your sanity and to your family and to your relationships,” she said in a Q&A at the Toronto Film Festival.

Union also wrote in a Los Angeles Times op-ed that she has not taken the allegations against Parker lightly.

Other topics discussed by Union in the Essence interview include life with her husband, NBA superstar Dwyane Wade, and her worries about violence against her three stepsons. See a photo of Union in Essence above and the November cover below.

Credit: Dennis Leupold
The Birth of a Nation
  • Movie
  • 120 minutes