Nate Parker's 'Birth of a Nation' receives standing ovation at Toronto Film Festival

The slavery drama has been touted as an awards contender, but overshadowed by a rape case from its creator's past

Tim Walker
US Correspondent
Saturday 10 September 2016 23:21 BST
The Birth Of A Nation - Trailer

Birth of a Nation, the slavery drama whose path to awards season appeared to have been blocked by a rape case from its creator’s past, has screened to a standing ovation at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF).

The film’s director and star, 36-year-old Nate Parker, was applauded warmly as he introduced the film, which tells the true story of an 1831 slave uprising in Virginia, led by Nat Turner. It was, he told the audience in Toronto, “a labour of love”.

Birth of a Nation was touted as an awards contender after two years in which the Oscars were slammed for the stark lack of diversity among the top nominees. At Sundance in January, it won the festival’s Grand Jury and Audience prizes, sparking a bidding war between distributors.

Fox Searchlight, which also released the 2014 Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave, eventually agreed to pay $17.5m (£12.2m) for Mr Parker’s film, a Sundance record. TIFF tends to be seen as the first stop on the awards season campaign trail.

Yet in recent weeks, the film’s merits have been overshadowed by the spectre of Mr Parker’s past: As students at Penn State University in 1999, he and his co-screenwriter Jean Celestin were tried for rape.

Mr Parker was acquitted, while Mr Celestin was convicted but had the charge overturned on appeal. Last month it emerged that their accuser, who remains unnamed, had committed suicide in 2012.

Amid the controversy, the American Film Institute cancelled an August screening of Birth of a Nation in LA. In Toronto on Friday, Mr Parker walked the red carpet for the first time since the case hit headlines, but was not faced with protesters outside or hecklers in the cinema audience.

The topic was also absent from a cast and crew Q&A after the screening, which included Parker’s co-star Gabrielle Union, who wrote recently of her “stomach-churning confusion” upon learning about the 1999 case.

According to the Hollywood Reporter, the film itself got a 90-second ovation, while the cast got a two-minute standing ovation as they emerged onstage afterwards, a rarity for TIFF, whose artistic director Cameron Bailey described Birth of a Nation as “a story that needed to be told”.

Mr Parker, who spent seven years trying to get the movie made, reportedly invested some $100,000 of his own money in the $10m production, turning down multiple acting jobs to pursue his passion project.

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