A fog of dread hovered over The Birth of a Nation’s Toronto Film Festival premiere last night. Winner of both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award (the two biggest honors) at Sundance in January, and an early Oscars favorite, the film should have arrived to TIFF with the swagger of a champion making a victory lap. Then, a month ago, the press began asking questions about a rape case that Birth’s director, writer, and star, Nate Parker, had been acquitted of back in 1999. With each new revelation, the movie’s prospects for awards season, or even just at the box office, seemed to recede. How was Fox Searchlight, who’d paid a Sundance-record $17.5 million for distribution rights, supposed to sell this albatross? Would every conversation now be dominated by questions about the rape case and Parker’s integrity? And if no one talked about that, then wasn’t that a kind of lie, too?
Well, last night’s Toronto premiere seemed to prove that those questions matter more to the media than the movie-going public. The first sign that Birth may be in better shape than expected was the size of the venue: TIFF handed over the entire historic Elgin and Winter Garden Theatre to the movie for the night. Built in 1913, the building is the last operating double-decker theater in the world — one that, TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey pointed out, used to host blackface minstrel shows. Birth played upstairs at the Winter Garden, which holds around 1,000, at 8 p.m., and downstairs at the Elgin, which holds around 1,500, at 9 p.m. I attended both, and both appeared to be sold out, with the lines around the block.
It also seemed that the festival and the movie’s PR team had thought to head off a variety of disaster scenarios. Unlike most festival films, there was no red carpet — meaning a press line with interviews — before the screening; instead, the festival had only allowed a “photocall,” in which a pen of photographers stationed near the door could take quick snaps of Parker and stars like Armie Hammer and Gabrielle Union as they walked inside. That meant for minimum time spent in the line of the protesters we all thought might be there, but who never did show. (Searchlight is making Parker and Co. available in more controlled environments, including a press conference and one-on-one junket interviews on Sunday.)
Bailey began his introduction by reminding the audience that the film is eligible for TIFF’s Grolsch People’s Choice award, and telling us about the theater’s history of blackface vaudeville and why it had been significant to show Birth there. “The Birth of a Nation tells a painful story from American history, but I think in the telling, it makes us stronger, and that’s why we wanted to present the film to you tonight,” he said, introducing Parker and the cast to huge applause. Parker simply said a few words of thanks, “Thank you for arriving, thank you for your time … this has been such a labor of love for us and we are desperately proud to present it to you,” and walked off the stage.
Throughout the screenings, the audience, from where I sat, seemed rapt. When the credits ended and Parker and the gang came back onstage, it was to a several-minutes-long standing ovation. (The reception was a little more tepid in the bigger Elgin theater an hour later, but still very warm.) In another brilliant strategy for heading off disaster, bringing nearly 20 people onstage meant that Bailey had to only introduce them all, ask a few questions, and let them chime in at will before the entire 15-minute Q&A time was over.
Parker began both Q&As by shouting out his Canadian financiers and telling the crowd that he’d never read about Nat Turner in history class, despite growing up 42 miles east of where the rebellion happened. He wanted to change that for other generations, he continued, “to promote the type of healing that we need and the conversation around race.” The actors talked about why the story had moved them and what they’d learned from it. Many referenced Parker’s leadership. And Parker, as he had at Sundance, talked about how he hoped the film would help inspire current civil-rights advocates: “What do you see in your community that is unjust, and what are you willing to do to stand against that thing?”
The high-wire moment came when Bailey turned the questions over to the audience, all of which were about the movie and the history of slavery (one guy simply stood up to tell Parker he thought the movie was important and profound), and after two questions at each screening, Bailey ended the session and sent everyone home. The only even passing reference to the rape case and its fallout came from Gabrielle Union, a sexual-assault survivor herself, who made a speech about “personal evolution” and the power of admitting one’s mistakes that may have been in part a nod to Parker’s evolving stance on the case.
So what does it mean that the storm we, the media, suspected was coming never actually did? Above all, it suggests that this movie has life left in it yet. In the insularity of Hollywood, where the number of Oscar votes one gets depends on how many hands one shakes, Parker’s past may be impossible to overcome. But there’s a big world of moviegoers beyond those 6,000 Academy members, and many of them aren’t nearly as concerned about the politics of their ticket-buying as we often assume. TIFF is an insular bubble, too, of course, but it’s also known as the People’s Festival for its populist access to screenings and is often an accurate predictor of how a movie will perform in the real world. Nearly 2,500 people showed up to see Birth last night, and by in large they seemed pleased with what they saw. If Searchlight can speak to them and ignore the din of the chattering classes, they might just be able to save this box office. And, as we’ve all seen before, sometimes box-office numbers are so undeniable they can conjure up an Oscar campaign from thin air — or even resurrect one.