Parker, cast argue for 'Birth of a Nation' despite scandal

JAKE COYLE
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Director and actor Nate Parker, center, gestures to the crowd as he arrives on the red carpet for the film "Birth of a Nation" during the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Friday, Sept. 9, 2016. (Chris Young/The Canadian Press via AP)

TORONTO (AP) — In a carefully stage-managed press conference at the Toronto International Film Festival, Nate Parker and the cast of his Nat Turner slave revolt drama "The Birth of a Nation" argued for focusing on their film and not on the years-old rape allegation against Parker that has enveloped the film in a scandal from his past.

Parker was facing a roomful of press for the first time since the details of a 1999 rape allegation against Parker surfaced. But Parker used the opportunity not to address questions over the case, but to deflect them. Though Parker directed, wrote, produced and stars as Turner in the film, he urged "The Birth of a Nation" to be viewed outside of himself.

"I've addressed it and I'm sure in different forums I'll address it more. The reality is no one person makes a film," said Parker, noting that hundreds worked on the film. "I would encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I'm just one person."

Parker bounded cheerfully into the press conference, exclaiming "Good morning!" and taking a seat at the end of a long table of cast members. The much-watched event was orchestrated to take the spotlight off Parker's past. A question wasn't taken from the media until about 40 minutes in. It was nearly an hour in that Parker took a question directly about the incident.

When he did, Parker declined to address whether he should have apologized to the now deceased rape victim's family. He also didn't address a question about whether he feels he's been more scrutinized than others in Hollywood.

"This is a forum for the film," said Parker. "This is a forum for the other people sitting on this stage."

He did say he believes Fox Searchlight, the film's distributor, is moving ahead with a planned promotional tour to churches and college campuses before the movie's October release. "From what I understand we're still moving forward with everything," Parker said.

"The Birth of a Nation" first debuted in January at the Sundance Film Festival at the same time the "OscarsSoWhite" backlash was raging. Parker's film immediately sparked widespread Oscar expectations and a bidding war among distributors. Fox Searchlight, an Academy Awards regular, landed it for a festival record $17.5 million, with the assurance of a nation-wide release.

But the newfound attention on Parker put a spotlight on a rape case from when he was a sophomore and wrestler at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted, though his college roommate, Jean Celestin (who helped create "The Birth of a Nation") was initially found guilty of sexual assault. That conviction was later overturned when the accuser declined to testify for a retrial.

Parker and Celestin allegedly harassed the accuser on campus. The incident spawned a successful civil lawsuit by the woman against the college. But the accuser, after several previous attempts, committed suicide in 2012. Her brother, identified only as Johnny, told The Hollywood Reporter that the rape case "was obviously that point" she changed.

As the story unfolded, Parker's contrite comments on the case didn't help the tailspin "The Birth of a Nation" fell into. Many think its awards chances are irreparably damaged. The American Film Institute recently canceled a scheduled screening of the film.

But the Toronto Film Festival stood by "The Birth of a Nation," keeping it in its program.

"It's a powerful film and it tells a hugely important story and the kind of story we don't see often," the festival's artistic director Cameron Bailey said in an interview. "I think everyone has to make up their own mind about what connections they draw between the art and the artist. These are not simple questions at all."

The film's festival premiere Friday evening was carefully watched, with trade reporters measuring the length of applause afterward (a perhaps moot point considering much of the crowd was made up of the film's backers).

The cast on Sunday voiced their support for the film, and its relevance to today's racial discord.

"We are examining an enormous shame in American history, and carrying an enormous amount of shame," said co-star Colman Domingo. "I just think that until we continue to confront our history there will be no peace. There's no peace in the streets right now. There's blood on the streets, and it's on everyone's hands because we are not facing our truth."

The issue of Parker's past is particularly acute for Gabrielle Union, who also stars in the film. She is herself an outspoken victim of rape who early penned an op-Ed in the Los Angeles Times about the allegations against Parker.

"Every time I talk about sexual violence, I want to puke, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to what the people feel who are voiceless," Union said. "I think we are all creating acknowledgment that we are real, that we exist, that we live among you, that we are your mothers or brothers or sisters or lovers."

The cast collectively sought to turn the conversation back toward the film and race in America.

"This isn't the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story," Penelope Ann Miller said. "Most people don't know the Nat Turner story. And I think it's an important story to learn about."

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Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP