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TIFF: ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Cast Talks Sexual Violence, Revolution and Resurrecting Nat Turner

September 12, 2016

When I was asked to attend the screening and press junket for Nate Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation” at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was hesitant. A film which I had been so looking forward to seeing for the better part of a year, suddenly made my stomach turn. The thought of putting my ideas and opinions on the project and filmmaker out for the world to see was daunting. The details surrounding filmmaker and actor Nate Parker’s rape trial in 1999, as well as his callous remarks in the past months regarding that time, were and are unsettling.

After reading those first interviews Parker gave to Variety and Deadline, I was sure I could not support “The Birth Of A Nation”. Rape is a heinous crime, and his words then further instilled in me that he did not understand the horrifying damage that was inflicted on the now deceased victim. (Though Parker maintains his innocence and was acquitted, it’s clear that he was not given verbal consent.) I also felt that if I saw the film, I would be contributing to a society that continues to validate rape culture, victim blaming and misogyny. Then I was asked to attend TIFF.

Prior to attending, I read the interview Parker gave with EBONY’s Britni Danielle where he apologized for his self-centered comments and has vowed to continue to learn and educate himself. I also read his co-star Gabrielle Union’s (who herself is a rape survivor) LA Times op-ed on Parker and “Birth”.

In the end, I decided to attend the screening and press junket. As a woman, I feel like what the film has sparked outside of its actual narrative, are vital conversations about rape, consent, sexual violence and the way in which we handle and discuss all of these things. These are desperately important conversations. Men especially need to continue to educate themselves and ask hard questions about their own masculinity and about consent. Too often the burden has fallen on women to protect ourselves from male predators.  Moreover, as a Black woman, Nat Turner’s story is endlessly important to not only the Black American community but also to American citizens as a whole.

I do not know if Nate Parker should be forgiven, that is not for me to say; he most certainly should not be excused for his actions then nor his initial response now. And yet for me, Parker’s personal actions then and now do not negate the importance of this film. Whether you decide to see this film or not, is a decision only you can make, just as I had to make the choice for myself. However, just as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and so many other of our Black leaders are important, Nat Turner’s voice should not and cannot be silenced.

Sexism, sexual violence, hyper-masculinity, misogyny, and racism all deserve platforms because they exist simultaneously and they often intersect. “The Birth Of A Nation’s” narrative, perhaps more than anything else in pop culture right now, proves that. At the very least, we MUST continue to talk about these very difficult topics. I will note that in the TIFF Press Junket, Parker was asked directly by a reporter from The New York Times, about why he has not apologized to the victim and her family, Parker declined to answer her question and instead focused the conversation back on the film itself. Journalists are supposed to ask difficult questions, and this was certainly one that I felt warranted a response. However, as the question had been addressed previously, it was unsurprising when Parker chose to ignore it. Furthermore, the manner in which the journalist blurted out the question could have contributed to why Parker chose not to respond. But however these questions are presented, I feel that it is imperative that these types of questions don’t get pushed aside. To do so would only continue to perpetuate the horrific rape culture that continues to thrive in society.

“The Birth Of A Nation” is a stunning cinematic work, not just about Nat Turner’s revolution but about the history of our nation, one that bleeds into who we are, today and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. At TIFF the film received a six-minute standing ovation once the credits rolled and the majority of the cast including, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Nate Parker were on hand to discuss the making of the film as well as the controversy surrounding it. This is what they had to say.

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