Last week when I wrote about Gabrielle Union’s powerful op-ed for the LA Times where she addressed Nate Parker’s rape allegations, I noted that Gabrielle’s piece made it impossible for the topic to be avoided at TIFF. The cast of The Birth of a Nation did the bulk of their press this weekend at the festival. The topic was not avoided, even though Nate Parker repeatedly dodged, danced, skirted, skated and did all the verbal gymnastics he could to expertly evade questions about his past. Gabrielle Union, on the other hand, invited the subject. Gabrielle managed to handle discussions about the controversy beautifully.
I’ve written multiple times that I hoped The Birth of a Nation press tour would continue an ongoing conversation about rape culture, consent, masculinity and sexual assault. I really wanted to believe that Nate Parker didn’t think his interview with Ebony was enough. I hoped he didn’t think that the questions and accountability would stop there or that he would get a break from talking about his alleged victim and her life, not his. It became clear this weekend that he did.
When asked directly by Cara Buckley of The New York Times whether he would publicly apologize to his accuser’s family, this was Nate Parker’s answer:
“I have addressed this a few times and I’m sure I’ll address it in different forums… This is a forum for the film and for other people sitting on the stage. I don’t want to hijack this with my personal life.”
He went on to mention the 400 people involved in making The Birth of a Nation. It’s a smart strategy. Mentioning all the people who made The Birth of a Nation reiterates the idea that this story is bigger than one man. His co-star Penelope Ann Miller echoed the sentiment by saying “this isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story.”
I understand that a TIFF Q&A isn’t an ideal place to have a nuanced conversation about rape and I really do feel for the 400 people who worked on this film but I’ll say it again: if The Birth of a Nation succeeds, it is a win for Nate Parker. He is the movie’s face. He is its director, writer and star. Part of being an actor and director is talking to people about your film, as yourself. Nate Parker attended TIFF as Nate Parker. When he says he doesn’t “want to hijack this with [his] personal life,” I can’t help but think that his personal life is the thing that will benefit from the film. If he wins an Oscar, who gets up and gives an acceptance speech? Nate Parker, the man. The alleged rapist.
I stand by my decision not to see the film but there is no doubt the story of Nat Turner is important. His story is a seminal part of American history that everyone should know, which is why the plan was to continue the press tour beyond TIFF onto college campuses. Nate Parker was asked if he would use the tour to talk about sexual assault. Here’s how The Toronto Star described his response:
He confirmed he still plans to tour but ducked the question about including a sexual assault aspect to it. Instead he rambled at length about how “we’ve all been traumatized” by past injustices, suggesting that campus rape might be just one of many social ills that could be addressed on his journey of healing.
Nate Parker, who allegedly raped a girl in his college dorm room, is going to tour campuses and only maybe discuss campus rape? What?
Gabrielle Union was noticeably placed on the opposite side of Nate Parker for the screening Q&A and for the press conference. The Cut called their positioning “conspicuously far away” from each other. She was also the first cast member to address the rape allegations. Coincidence or conspiracy?
While Parker was cutting interviews short if asked about his rape allegations, Union was literally inviting more questions by stating, “Let's have this very uncomfortable discussion.”
“Every time I talk about sexual violence I want to puke,” she said at the press conference. “There’s never been a time in the last 23 years where I did not want to vomit, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to being a voice for people who feel absolutely voiceless and powerless… So if there’s any message I can give anyone who’s ever sat in my seat, it’s, ‘You are not broken, you are not alone, you have a tremendous amount of support. Whether you speak out or you opt to keep your pain personal, you are real, you are valid, you are loved, and you are worthwhile.’”
Gabrielle Union is a sexual assault survivor. Every time she talks about this topic she gets nauseous and yet she’s committed to having the conversation, repeatedly, so that other survivors hear her. She doesn’t care if her personal life “hijacks” the conversation.
You can read Gabrielle Union’s full remarks here.