One of the most highly-anticipated moments of the festival finally arrived. Saturday night, I sat down for a screening of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation and followed it up the next morning with an hour-plus long press conference featuring Parker and the primary cast of the film (Armie Hammer, Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Aja Naomi King, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, and Jackie Earle Haley). Leading up to the festival, questions loomed as to whether or not TIFF would include the film in the festival program, whether Fox Searchlight would set up a press conference, and most importantly, whether the film’s controversial screenwriter-director-star would be involved.
Fears, it seems, were allayed when the premiere public screening of The Birth of a Nation resulted in a standing ovation from the audience. TIFF moviegoers are known for their positivity, which explains the eager politeness that envelopes you as you walk around the festival village.
In upcoming piece – for both Cincinnati CityBeat and Dayton CityPaper – I will discuss, in far more detail, responses and reactions to the film, but for this teaser, the spotlight shines on the revolutionary women sitting at the table alongside Parker. Much has written about Parker’s acquittal in a sexual assault case (which also involved his best friend and The Birth of a Nation writing partner Jean Celestin) back in 1999, when he was a student at Penn State, the tragic news about the victim’s suicide in 2012, and the seeming conspiracy of having this situation emerge just as the film entered the awards season. Union, a survivor of sexual assault and outspoken advocate on the issue, even penned a harsh and honest wrangling with the immediate controversy in The Los Angeles Times.
And it was Union and Ellis who turned the tense press conference into a revival, speaking with fervor, recommending that audiences struggling with whether or not to see the film, bring their misgivings, their anger and their hurt to the theater. See the film, they each said, see it and talk about it, rail about the multitude of injustices currently on debate – from racism (in all its forms and functions), rape (on college campuses and beyond), gay and transgender concerns, and religious intolerance – debate and protest from a more informed position. Miller also challenged the idea that the history of Nation gets at problems for the entire United States, not just black folks.
The female characters in The Birth of a Nation, each in their own ways, prop up and support the evolution of Nat Turner, protecting and nurturing him until he was ready to stand up and lead his rebellion. What I saw in these actresses yesterday, was the continuation of that fight, expanded and empowered, protecting and nurturing themselves.
Parker, at some point, will have to fend for himself.