Ever since news of Nate Parker’s 1999 rape case began making headlines earlier this summer, there’s been speculation on how the female cast members of The Birth of a Nation, the biopic of slave rebel leader Nat Turner that Parker wrote, directed, and starred in, would react — particularly Gabrielle Union, who has been vocal about her own survival of sexual assault. Parker had been accused and acquitted of raping a fellow student 17 years ago while a student at Penn State University, and during his clumsy and tone-deaf early defense of his actions this August, Union and co-star Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife, had remained silent, with Union’s first statement on the matter coming through an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last week. But with the movie opening on October 7, the time for equivocation is over. And it seems clear, from an impassioned impromptu speech she gave from the stage at Nation’s Toronto Film Festival premiere — the movie’s first public screenings, back-to-back in the same historic theater house, since the rape-case fallout — that Union is going to stand by her movie, stand by her director, and stand by San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s boycott of the national anthem at football games while she’s at it.
Asked why she signed on for the movie, Union gave an answer that did not mention Parker directly (except, perhaps, by Freudian slip), but did seem to reference the director’s recent mea culpa for his initial statements to the press when the controversy first came up. “I think one of the beautiful things we all can relate to Nate — to Nat — is we’re all capable of evolution,” said Union.
To anyone who’s been following the story closely, that seems like a subtle, yet clear, reference to Parker’s very public process of becoming woke to the insensitivity of his initial response about his past. In an interview with Variety, he’d painted himself as the victim (“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life”) — trotting out one of his five daughters as an optic for what a good man he is — and said a lot of words, none of which were an apology, or took his accuser’s perspective into account, or acknowledged that his perspective of consent as a 19-year-old college athlete in a different era of rape awareness might have been flawed. “The reality is I can’t relive 17 years ago,” he said. “All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”
Two weeks later, after a flurry of criticism, Parker gave a revealing interview to Ebony in which he explained he’d been working to understand his male privilege by watching the college rape documentary The Hunting Ground and reading essays by black female writers Roxane Gay and Maiysha Kai. “You asked me why I wasn’t empathetic? Why didn’t it come off more empathetic? Because I wasn’t being empathetic. Why didn’t it come off more contrite? Because I wasn’t being contrite. Maybe I was even being arrogant,” he said, also revealing that he’d talked to people who were rape survivors in his own film to ask them what they needed him to do, and how he could do better by them.
Was Union one of the people he talked to from his film? We don’t know. In her op-ed, she wrote that the revelation of that rape case sent her into “a state of stomach-churning confusion,” and that after reading all 700 pages of the trial transcripts, she still is no closer to understanding what happened. But it does seem as though she does believe in redemption and personal evolution and she’s willing to stick around to see how Parker’s turns out.
Case in point: She showed up on that stage last night with Parker. “Nat Turner was firmly committed to his faith,” Union went on, “but it was a faith that forced and encouraged his subservience and the subservience of those that look like him, and until he knew better, he didn’t do better, and once he did better, it started in him a fire that he refused to extinguish that carries on to this day. That is why everyone up here is on this stage. Because it’s about personal evolution. Did I leave this job in a better place than when I started?"
Union was becoming animated, preaching almost, stepping forward from the line of fellow actors and walking toward the audience. “I was firmly committed to not the best projects. Now I can’t go back. Know what I’m saying? When we commit to evolution and when we humble ourselves and realize that we don’t have all the answers, that the things that we’ve firmly rooted ourselves in may not be the right course, that we may not be on the right side of history, it’s okay to be like, ‘I was wrong. Imma step in the right direction.’”
Now she was really going. “So if you are wondering about Colin Kaepernick and his stand for equality and if he’s on the right side of history, there’s nothing more patriotic than resistance and encouraging resistance! That is the story of the legacy of Nat Turner, and that’s why we’re all on this stage,” she said. The crowd burst into applause, Parker included. Union simply handed the mic off with a smile. She’d said her piece for the night, but the movie doesn’t open for a month ... and she’s just getting started.