Parker, cast argue for ‘Birth of a Nation’ despite scandal

TORONTO (AP) — In a carefully stage-managed press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Nate Parker and the cast of his Nat Turner slave revolt drama “The Birth of a Nation” argued passionately for focusing on their film and not on the years-old rape allegation against Parker that has enveloped the film in a scandal from the past.

Parker was facing a roomful of press for the first time since the details of a 1999 rape allegation against Parker surfaced. Though Parker directed, wrote, produced and stars as Turner in the film, he urged “The Birth of a Nation” to be viewed outside of himself.

“I’ve addressed and I’m sure in different forms I’ll address it more. The reality is no one person makes a film,” said Parker, noting that hundreds worked on the film. “I would encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person.”

Parker bounded cheerfully into the press conference, exclaiming “Good morning!” and taking a seat at the end of a long table of cast members. The much-watched event was orchestrated to take the spotlight off Parker’s past. A question wasn’t taken from the media until about 40 minutes in. It was nearly an hour in that Parker took a question directly about the incident.

“This is a forum for the film,” said Parker. “This is a forum for the other people sitting on this stage.”

Parker declined to address whether he should have been more sensitive to the now deceased rape victim, or whether he feels his past transgressions have been more scrutinized than similar incidents have been for others in Hollywood. He did say he believes Fox Searchlight, the film’s distributor, is moving ahead with a planned promotional tour to churches and college campuses before the movie’s October release.

“From what I understand we’re still moving forward with everything,” Parker said.

“The Birth of a Nation” first debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival at the same time the “OscarsSoWhite” backlash was raging. Parker’s film immediately sparked widespread Oscar expectations and a bidding war among distributors. Fox Searchlight, an Academy Awards regular, landed it for a festival record $17.5 million, with the assurance of a nation-wide release.

But the newfound attention on Parker put a spotlight on a rape case from when he was a sophomore and wrestler at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted, though his college roommate, Jean Celestin (who helped create “The Birth of a Nation”) was initially found guilty of sexual assault. That conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial.

Parker and Celestin allegedly harassed the accuser on campus. The incident spawned a civil lawsuit by the woman against the college with a settlement of $17,500. But the accuser, after several previous attempts, committed suicide in 2012. Her brother, identified only as Johnny, told The Hollywood Reporter that the rape case “was obviously that point” she changed.

As the story unfolded, Parker’s contrite comments on the case didn’t help the tailspin “The Birth of a Nation” fell into. Many think its awards chances are gone. The American Film Institute recently canceled a scheduled screening.

But the Toronto Film Festival stood by the film, keeping it in its program.

“It’s a powerful film and it tells a hugely important story and the kind of story we don’t see often,” the festival’s artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview. “So I’m glad to be showing the film to our audience here. I think everyone has to make up their own mind about what connections they draw between the art and the artist. These are not simple questions at all.”

The film’s festival premiere was carefully watched, with trade reporters measuring the length of applause afterward. The cast, which also attended the press conference, has supported Parker.

“This movie is so much bigger than me, than Nate, but it includes all of us in moving this conversation forward,” Gabrielle Union, herself once a rape victim, told The Associated Press on Saturday.

“I was actually encouraged to shirk my responsibilities, duck it, cut ties,” added Union. “My whole point in taking this film was to talk about sexual violence, and it seems asinine to shirk that responsibility.”

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