At the Toronto Film Festival this week, all eyes will be on Nate Parker. The actor, writer, director and producer of “The Birth of a Nation” will journey north of the border in hopes of salvaging a press tour that threatened to be derailed by a mounting controversy over his college rape trial.
It’s a high-stakes gamble, one that will find Parker, who was acquitted by a juror of the charges, sitting for television interviews and holding a press conference. Not only will he invariably be grilled on his behavior that night 17 years ago, but every one of his answers will be picked over and analyzed, leaving little room for error.
Parker’s initial handling of the subject in interviews with Variety and Deadline — in which he emphasized his innocence and said he had “moved on” — was widely seen as a disaster. Since then he has changed course, showing remorse for being a “player” in college and attempting to take stock of his own “toxic masculinity.” He has also suggested he may seek to incorporate the lessons he is learning about male privilege into the message of his film, which dramatizes the story of Nat Turner’s slave uprising in 1831.
But it will be a challenge — to say the least — for Parker to find acceptance as a spokesman on the issue of rape culture. Fox Searchlight has indicated that Parker will take the film to campus screenings, but he may find hostile audiences if he follows through with the plan. Activists say Parker’s recent comments to Ebony Magazine, in which he said he was confronting his own privilege, show he still has much to learn.
“I think it’s a terrible idea for him to go on campus educating about rape and rape culture,” said Kamilah Willingham, an activist who appeared in “The Hunting Ground,” the campus rape documentary. “He still doesn’t get it. He’s trying to have it both ways.”
Fox Searchlight declined to comment and a spokesman for Parker did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
While he has expressed some general regrets, Parker has avoided speaking about the details of the alleged rape, which occurred in 1999 when he was a student at Penn State. Parker and his roommate, Jean Celestin, were accused of raping an 18-year-old student while she was drunk and unconscious. They were also accused of harassing her afterwards when she took the matter to police. Parker was acquitted, while Celestin was found guilty. His conviction was later overturned on appeal. The victim committed suicide in 2012.
In the Ebony interview, and in a talk at the Merge Conference, Parker acknowledged “discarding” women and mistreating them emotionally. But his critics see a world of difference between caddish behavior and rape. They are looking for him to move beyond buzzwords like “toxic masculinity” to a more direct acknowledgement of the pain he caused the victim.
“It felt very superficial. I haven’t read anywhere where he respects or honors his victim at all,” said Black Lives Matter activist Marissa Johnson, who wrote a piece critical of Parker at The Establishment. In the absence of such an acknowledgement, Johnson said she would prefer he remain silent on the subject.
“Saying nothing is better than saying things that continue to be harmful,” she said.
The subject poses a dilemma for Fox Searchlight, which purchased “The Birth of a Nation” at the Sundance Film Festival for a record $17.5 million. In its initial statement, the studio echoed Parker’s insistence on his own innocence, stressing in a statement that Parker had been “cleared of all charges.” The statement seemed intended to put the matter firmly in the past — “17 years ago,” as Parker often stressed — and to avoid distracting from the film’s timely theme of confronting racism and bigotry.
But in the wake of the uproar, Parker said he was using the criticism to begin a journey of self-improvement, which he said would make him a better leader on issues of injustice. He said he was taking the first of “many, many, many, many steps,” one of which seemed to be addressing male privilege as part of the “curriculum” of the film.
“Male privilege in a way is like white supremacy,” he said at the Merge Conference. “If racism ended tomorrow but violence against women didn’t change, we’d be in a spot still. So I’m really just trying to wrap my head around how I can be a part — how that can be part of this curriculum of this film. How we can use this platform not just for one sliver of justice, but to deal with all injustice…”
Johnson suggested that one strategy would be for Parker to relinquish the stage to survivors of sexual abuse.
“I don’t want to hear you go speak about male privilege and toxic masculinity,” she said. “That says more about ego and wanting to prove to people you’ve been redeemed… If you’re actually trying to be like, ‘Let’s educate people,’ then you take the people most affected and give them your platform.”
Instead of presenting a unified front, the cast of “The Birth of a Nation” has been grappling with the fallout from the revelations in a very public manner? and in real time. Co-star Gabrielle Union, who is a rape survivor, wrote an op/ed in the Los Angeles Times last week in which she discussed her own experience and criticized Parker’s interpretation of consent as a college student. To construe the absence of a “no” as a “yes,” she wrote, is “problematic at least, criminal at worst.” At the same time, she defended the film, calling it “ground-breaking” and said she hoped the controversy could become an opportunity for progress.
But some activists are troubled by the film as well. The film portrays a rape — an invention not found in the historical record — as a cause for the uprising.
“That’s really yucky to anyone who’s aware of Nate Parker’s past,” Johnson said. “He didn’t need to put that in the story and chose to. I think that’s going to be a big thing for people to get over.”
Willingham said she was concerned that the rape is seen through the lens of the male characters.
“That is such an old and played-out narrative,” she said. “I think black women are getting tired of slave narratives that are centered on men’s experiences.”
It’s unclear how the controversy will affect Parker’s plans to take the film to college campuses. The American Film Institute canceled a screening two weeks ago, which would have been mandatory for all students. Instead, the institute hosted a private conversation for students with critic Elvis Mitchell last week, and will reschedule an optional screening for sometime later in the fall.
Fox Searchlight is moving ahead with preview screenings at a number of other college campuses, including Yale University and the University of Miami. A spokesman for the Wexner Center for the Arts, which had been planning to screen the film at Ohio State University, said it had decided to move forward with its showing. The Wexner Center will host a panel discussion with faculty from across campus that will address the issues surrounding the film, and following the screening it will have a Q&A moderated by a faculty person who can address the historical content of the film.
Alex Ago, director of programming at the USC School of Cinematic Arts, said that a producer of the film, Jason Berman, will screen it for Leonard Maltin’s seminar class and do a Q&A .
“We think it’s a very powerful movie,” Ago said, noting that Berman would not shy away from the controversy. “An academic forum is exactly the right place to be having these conversations amongst our students.”
USC students will also be invited to a preview screening on the Fox lot on Sept. 20.
A screening is also set for the Whitney Humanities Center at Yale on Oct. 6, the day before the film is released on 1,500 screens nationwide. Helen Price, co-director of Unite Against Sexual Assault Yale, said that while the film is “politically important,” the rape case is “particularly disturbing.” She also seemed unmoved by Parker’s Ebony interview.
“I think the interview is more of the same really — the fact that he ‘called up a couple sisters’ and made them explain to him how he messed up is yet another example of how women, particularly women of color, do a huge amount of thankless emotional labor trying to educate the men in their lives about issues such as this,” she wrote.
Parker still has his defenders. Two weeks ago, four Penn State classmates of Parker’s penned an 1,800-word open letter defending Parker and Celestin’s innocence and casting them as victims of “blatant racism.” They also pointed to the victim’s previous history of depression, attempting to deflect the claim that the rape led to the her suicide.
Two of the four authors, Brian and Lurie Favors, have served on the board of the Nate Parker Foundation. A third, Assata Richards, told Variety she wanted to correct what she felt were factual mistakes in the media’s coverage of the case. She said Parker had not asked her to write the letter and that he had no involvement.
“To call Nate Parker and Jean Celestin rapists after they have been through a full judicial process is irresponsible,” she said. ”To put someone through that process and then to say, ‘Oh wait, wait, wait, you’re still guilty’ — that is not fair.”
It’s also unclear whether Parker will be met with protests when he screens the film at Toronto this week.
Sonya Barnett, co-founder of Toronto’s SlutWalk, a group that seeks to end rape culture, said she wasn’t sure how to feel about the film or its maker.
“I could object loudly to the screening, being on the side of assault victims, but as a white woman, I cannot tell people to protest a film on black slavery,” she said. “It’s a messy situation, no matter how you try to spin it.”