After screenings were cancelled at AFI and several college campuses, controversial director Nate Parker brought his much talked about The Birth of a Nation to the Toronto International Film Festival for its world premiere. The Birth of a Nation powerfully tells the unheralded story of the life of Nat Turner and how he led a slave revolt in 1831. The film’s Friday night presentation received glorious applause and Parker alongside 17 members of his cast and crew stood proud at their work.
That same pride, if not more visceral, was on display as the principal cast members participated in a roundtable press conference moderated by ESSENCE entertainment director Cori Murray. When asked about the controversy surrounding Parker’s past acquittal of sexual assault and how would he and the cast planned on motivating people who have voiced not supporting Parker or The Birth of a Nation, Parker took the question head on before allowing his cast mates to weigh in. Says Parker, “I won’t try to speak for anyone. First, I’ve addressed it and the reality is there is no one person that makes a film. We had over 400 people involved in this project. I would encourage anyone [to see the film], my personal life aside, [but] I’m just one person. It’s equally important that everyone who is on this stage and everyone who has sweat, bled and cried for this film to have an opportunity to get any reward or compliment for their work.” Parker continued, “The legacy of Nat Turner is important to all of us… And that will progress and inspire conversations that we wanted to have.”
Costar Penelope Ann Miller chimed in, by simply reminding the room, “This isn’t the Nate Parker story, it’s the Nat Turner story.” As an advocate against sexual assault and rape survivor, Gabrielle Union, wrote an op-Ed in The Los Angeles Times that she does not take Parker’s rape allegations lightly. Today the actress, who has poignant cameo as a mute slave, firmly stated her and her cast’s choice for making the film was to create a movement, not a movie. Says Union, “Yes, we are addressing racial inequities and actively pushing back against oppression. But that movement is inclusive. It includes the people whom fight back against sexual violence; the military personnel who come back to our country without proper services; this movie also addresses people who want to deal with mental health issues or early childhood education…. Any issue that you have that is addressing any oppressive system, or any type of inequality, this movie is for you as well.” She continued: “There’s a space and a place for everyone and it’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable, awkward and heated conversations but it’s the only way we can hope to have behavioral shifts.”
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Aja Naomi King, who plays Turner’s wife Cherry, added: “This movie was made to galvanize us all, to shock us into action–that is what’s necessary. We are in a time of crisis. And it’s all hands on deck. Every single one of us must stand in our power and do something, and watching this movie–especially the ending of it–the movement that Nat Turner has started has continued into today. Watching this movie makes you wanna get up, stand up for something and go outside and have the conversation.”
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Visibly moved actress Aunjanue Ellis, who stars as Turner’s resilient mother Elizabeth, provided a spirited history lesson in how art has been more than just art for African Americans, and why separation of the art from the artist is needed because the film’s message is too urgent. In her words: “Art has been essential to the African American as a method of survival. When we sang songs on the plantation, it was a way to communicate things to one another…. We need our art to tell us who we are and this movie is a rebellion against us being told for so many years we were subservient, or that slaves were workers, or not telling us Nat Turner’s story. It’s an uprising against that. This movie is that song in the heat because we have someone beating us with a baton. We have to do this method of communication to tell us who we are. So if you have an issue–and you are right to have all of that because of your disdain of disfavor [of the artist]–bring that. And then let’s talk about it.”
The Birth of a Nation is in theaters October 4.