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‘Birth of a Nation’ Debuts to Standing Ovation at Toronto Despite Controversy

The Birth of a Nation” received a standing ovation at its Friday night premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, despite ongoing controversy about the college rape trial of Nate Parker.

Initially viewed as an Oscar frontrunner after a record-breaking deal at the Sundance Film Festival, the film has seen its awards prospects threatened as the public has learned about accusations that Parker sexually assaulted an 18-year-old Penn State student while they were attending college together. He was later acquitted of the charges.

Jean Celestin, Parker’s roommate at the time and the co-writer of “The Birth of a Nation,” was found guilty. His conviction was later overturned on appeal, and the accuser committed suicide in 2012.

Fox Searchlight, which acquired worldwide rights to the film for $17.5 million last spring, has sought to limit Parker’s exposure to the press. A party for the film at the Shangri-La Hotel shortly before the screening was closed to the media and a red carpet was mostly limited to photographers. Parker didn’t do interviews, but flashed a peace sign before entering the theater. Parker wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the drama about slave rebellion leader Nat Turner.

After the credits rolled, Parker mounted the stage flanked by the rest of the film’s cast. He clasped his hands together as the crowd applauded and exhaled. He began his remarks by thanking Fox Searchlight and the film’s financiers.

“I appreciate it more than you can possibly imagine,” he said.

A showing that may have been a source of anxiety for the studio went off without incident. There was no heckling during the screening and no signs of protests outside the Winter Garden Theatre, where the film showed. During a question and answer period, moderator and festival artistic director Cameron Bailey kept the focus on the production and Turner’s legacy.

Parker said that despite growing up 42 miles east of where Turner’s rebellion unfolded in Virginia, there were no monuments to the man who inspired his fellow slaves to take up arms in 1831 against their masters. After becoming an actor and learning about Turner, making a film about his life became a passion project for Parker.

“This is someone who should be celebrated along the lines of Patrick Henrys, of Jeffersons, of our founding fathers,” said Parker. “I felt like this was a story that I felt, historically speaking, could really promote the type of healing we need and the conversation around race.”

Although slave owners violently struck down Turner’s rebellion and attempted to wipe out his legacy, Parker said his role in history is secure and his life story continued to be told, passed down as part of a vibrant oral tradition.

“He solidified his legacy the moment that he raised the ax,” he said.

Other cast members, such as Roger Guenveur Smith, drew parallels between Turner’s story and modern political protests against racially charged police brutality. He noted that Turner was only one instance of rebellion in the history of the United States.

“Nat Turner was not an anomaly and was part of a tradition of resistance which began in the Western Hemisphere in the year 1492,” said Guenveur Smith. “What happened in Southampton County in 1831 was part of an ongoing movement of liberation which continues to this day. Nat Turner and his comrades recognized in 1831, a long time ago, that indeed, black lives do matter.”

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