Today’s Toronto Film Festival press conference for The Birth of a Nation at times felt more like a forced feeding than an honest conversation, with the elephant in the room being director, writer, and star Nate Parker’s 1999 rape case and its impact on the movie going unaddressed for nearly half of the hour-long allotted time. The press conference was the only chance for print and online reporters to ask questions, given that the movie’s distributor, Fox Searchlight, had significantly limited one-on-one interviews. As some 150 members of the press waited in a hotel conference room for their chance to pick up a microphone, moderator Cori Murray of Essence magazine asked each of the eight cast members onstage, including Parker, Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, and Aja Naomi King, a lengthy question about their parts or the movie before bringing up the controversy.
“Unfortunately, as we all know in this room, now Birth of a Nation is shadowed with controversy that now has taken Nate’s very personal story and made it very personal to you given your acquittal of sexual assault 17 years ago,” Murray began. “So what do you — also now what people are doing is judging the film before seeing it, which is not fair because it’s still an important film — but what do you have to say to those people who are making this choice, and how would you motivate them to support it?”
“Well, I won’t try to speak for anyone,” said Parker, “I would say, I’ve addressed it, and I’m sure at future times I’ll address it more, but the reality is, there is no one person that makes a film.” He went on for several minutes explaining that over 400 people had been involved with the project and had made sacrifices and put their lives on hold for it, and how it wasn’t fair to let that work go to waste. “I would just encourage everyone to remember that, personal life aside, that it’s not one person.”
It wasn’t until another half hour had passed that the subject came up again, from the New York Times writer Cara Buckley, who has been working for months on a profile of Parker. “I think few people would doubt that the movie is important and carries a deeply important message for this time,” she said, “but a lot of people are having trouble separating the artist from the art. And since it is a film about moral responsibility, a lot of people felt you should have apologized for what happened 17 years ago to the victim and her family, but why haven’t you? And would you now?”
“I’ll say this,” said Parker. “For one, I’ve addressed this a few times, and I’m sure I’ll address it in different forums. This is a forum for the film. This is a forum for the other people who are sitting on this stage. It’s not mine, I don’t own it. It doesn’t belong to me, so I definitely don’t want hijack it. I do want to make sure that we are honoring this film, and we’re honoring these people in front of you, before you. So respectfully, I want to say thank you again to the Toronto International Film Festival for allowing us to be here, and I want to continue celebrating the people that helped make this film possible.” Then, amid audible, aghast chatter, he moved on to the next question.