At a heated press conference on Sunday morning, Nate Parker tried to keep the spotlight solely on his passion project “The Birth of a Nation.” But he could not escape a grilling by the media about his role in a college rape case from 1999.
When asked if he planned to apologize to the victim or her family, he dodged the question. “It’s not mine,” he said about the platform of the Toronto Film Festival press conference. “I definitely don’t want to hijack it with my personal life.”
Parker arrived in Toronto on Friday, where he’s been carefully managed for the last two days by an army of publicists from Fox Searchlight, the boutique studio that spent $17.5 million for the indie about slave revolt leader Nat Turner. Parker attended a no-press-allowed party on Friday night, before appearing at two screenings for his film. On Saturday, Parker granted interviews to a small group of journalists at a junket, where a Canadian reporter was cut off after bringing up the rape case. That night, he attended the Hollywood Foreign Press Association party, co-hosted by In Style, where he told a Variety reporter he hadn’t been reading a lot of the press about himself.
For the last month, all headlines about “The Birth of a Nation” have been about Parker’s past. In 1999, as an undergraduate at Penn State, Parker was accused of raping an 18-year-old classmate. Although he was acquitted, questions about the case persist. He wrote “Birth of a Nation’s” story with his former roommate Jean Celestin, who was found guilty of sexual assault in the case but later had the conviction overturned. Last month, Variety uncovered that the alleged victim in the case committed suicide in 2012.
The press conference’s moderator, Essence’s Cori Murray, described herself as an advocate for the film, and said it was “not fair” that people were “judging the film before seeing it.”
“The reality is there is no one person that makes a film,” Parker said. “We’ve had over 400 people involved in this project. So many people are away from their families and working on the film… I would just encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person.”
He added: “I think it’s equally important that everyone onstage who has sweat and bled and cried for this film has the opportunity to get any award that comes from their work.” He said that many of his actors made sacrifices for his independent film, including working for scale.
The mood inside the Fairmont Hotel was tense. When it seemed like a Fox Searchlight publicist was only calling on reporters with softball questions, Mashable’s Jeff Sneider piped up about how there were others in the room too. Parker then said he’d take his question, although he didn’t answer it (it was about whether the press has a double standard about which scandals it would forgive).
For most of the hour-long press conference, the seven other cast members that shared a stage with Parker spoke glowingly of working with him. A majority of the conversation was driven by three of the movie’s female co-stars — Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union, who appears in a supporting role. “The best 12 minutes of my life,” she joked. “Don’t tell my husband.”
“For me, this isn’t the Nate Parker story,” said Penelope Ann Miller, who plays a slave owner in the movie. “This is the Nat Turner story. I would say from most of the interviews I’ve done, most people don’t know about the Nat Turner story. I think it’s an important story to learn about.” She added, “I hope people would give us a chance.”