Nate Parker evades questions about rape case at Birth of a Nation press conference

This weekend saw the film's first public screening since news of the star and director's involvement in a rape case emerged

Jacob Stolworthy
Monday 12 September 2016 08:27 BST
(Getty Images)

Former Oscar front-runner The Birth of a Nation was shown at Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) yesterday (11 September) and a press conference led by the film's director and star Nate Parker followed.

The film - which is focused on the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner - was recently overshadowed by Parker's past involvement in a 1999 rape case which saw he and roommate Jean Celestin (the film's co-writer) accused of raping an 18-year-old woman while unconscious when studying at Penn State.

Reporters present at the 'heated' press conference grew frustrated by the moderator's inability to select those willing to ask tougher questions about the controversy.

Variety reports:

'The mood inside the Fairmont Hotel was tense. When it seemed like a Fox Searchlight publicist was only calling on reporters with softball questions, Mashable’s Jeff Sneider piped up about how there were others in the room too. Parker then said he’d take his question, although he didn’t answer it (it was about whether the press has a double standard about which scandals it would forgive).'

The cast, however, were intent on steering the audience away from the controversy that has so shrouded the film, with Penelope Ann Miller saying: "For me, this isn't the Nate Parker story. This is the Nat Turner story."

Parker himself commented: “The reality is there is no one person that makes a film. We’ve had over 400 people involved in this project. So many people are away from their families and working on the film… I would just encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I’m just one person.”

“I think it’s equally important that everyone onstage who has sweat and bled and cried for this film has the opportunity to get any award that comes from their work," he added.

Elsewhere, CBC reporter Eric Glaser was granted a five-minute interview slot with Parker which was cut short when he asked if Fox Searchlight was changing its strategy because of the attention on his personal life; you can watch the moment below.

While Parker was acquitted in 2000, Celestin was found guilty and sentenced to six months in prison (he later appealed the verdict and a second trial was thrown out due to the victim's inability to testify again).

Both of the accused were suspended from the wrestling team and Parker went on to transfer to Oklahoma. The woman dropped out of college and, following her refusal to testify at Celestin's appeal, settled a $17,500 payout with Penn State; she committed suicide in 2012.

In a statement, Fox Searchlight - who acquired the film for a record-breaking $17.5 million - said it is "...aware of the incident that occurred while Nate Parker was at Penn State. We also know that he was found innocent and cleared of all charges. We stand behind Nate and are proud to help bring this important and powerful story to the screen.”

Despite the controversy, The Birth of a Nation's TIFF screening received a standing ovation.

The film is slated to arrive in UK cinemas on 20 January; the film also stars Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union.

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