If the reception to Birth of a Nation at the box office hasn't been quite what its creators hoped for, Gabrielle Union says she doesn't fault those who are choosing to boycott the film over Nate Parker's rape scandal. (The film's director and star was accused of raping a classmate at Penn State in 1999, but was acquitted of all charges.) In her new Essence cover story, Union explains why she's standing by anyone who sits the film out. "As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult," Union writes. "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."
Union, whose silent role in the film includes a controversial rape scene, previously spoke out about Parker's allegations in an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times, expressing the hope that the resurfaced allegations would spark a larger conversation on rape culture. Now, in Essence, she says that much of the film's female cast is united on the issue: "We are okay if you have to sit this one out, and we’re okay if you don’t.”
Union's co-stars have co-signed her sentiments. Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Nat Turner's mother, says she expected there to be personal conflict for many audiences, but especially black women and rape activists. “You will have black women having to make the choice of, Am I going to be black or am I going to be a woman? What am I doing here? What am I doing? And I think it’s a conversation that needs to happen,” she tells BuzzFeed. “It also breaks my heart that there are a contingency, or a community, of folks who are going to stay home because they feel like to see it would be anti-feminist … They feel that they have to stand in solidarity with the woman who was abused, and I understand that wholly.” In an essay for Ebony, Ellis says she also sympathizes with the toll Birth has taken on the family of Parker's late accuser. “The idea that our movie would cause another woman or family affected by rape further pain has put me to bed in the middle of the day on more than one occasion," she writes. "We cannot say that our movie seeks to heal the past when we do not acknowledge and show respect to this present pain.”
Breakout star Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner's wife, tells the L.A. Times that, ultimately, whether people watch Birth is insignificant: “I don’t want to diminish anyone’s feelings. At the end of the day, seeing the film or not seeing the film is not going to change the world. Changing the world is going to change the world. The film was meant to start a conversation.”