TIFF 2016: Unanswered Questions to Birth of a Nation Star Won't Separate the Art From the Artist 

click to enlarge Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation - FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Fox Searchlight
  • Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation
There is no right answer, but there is an appropriate response to the 1999 charges of sexual assault against filmmaker/actor Nate Parker and the separation of art and artist.

At the Toronto International Film Festival, Parker fumbled when he first began speaking publicly following two screenings of his new film, The Birth of a Nation. Then he spent the better part of an hour deflecting all questions about the incident, which involved then-fellow Penn State students Parker and Jean Celestin—the latter a co-writer of the film—who were charged with attacking a female student. While Parker was later acquitted of the charge, Celestin saw his charges tossed out on appeal when the accuser didn't testify at the second trial. The alleged victim, it was later learned, took her own life.

Just as Parker was hailed as the odds-on favorite to sweep next year's Oscars (he's the director, co-writer and star of The Birth of a Nation), the 17-year-old alleged attack was unearthed by the press this summer. Parker then took to Facebook, writing, "I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom."

In August, no less than the American Film Institute decided to cancel its high-profile screening of The Birth of a Nation, which was to include a question-and-answer session with Parker. Worse yet, the Hollywood Reporter writes it has been told by numerous Motion Picture Academy members they "will not even see the film, let alone consider voting for it."

click to enlarge Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation - FOX SEARCHLIGHT
  • Fox Searchlight
  • Nate Parker stars in The Birth of a Nation
Controversy aside, organizers at the Toronto International Film Festival decided to move forward with screenings of The Birth of a Nation at this year's event—but made the unusual choice not to host an official press conference with Parker and his team of co-stars and producers.

Boise Weekly was told that none of the press could even ask a question of Parker or his co-stars as they walked the red carpet to the film's premiere.

Film critics and members of the world press were then told producers of the film would hold their own media conference in Toronto on Sept. 11—two days after the premiere—and that Parker would be in attendance to take questions. 

But at the press availability, before any of the media could ask a question, Parker stated he had "already addressed" the issue and "I definitely don't want to hijack this with my personal life."

Parker continued to deflect questions, but later said, "Healing comes with honest confrontation about our past." Then came perhaps his most provocative remarks: "The reality is we've all been traumatized."

TIFF attracts some of the smartest and most powerful members of the film industry: producers, distributors, agents, studio heads and a massive amount of publicists. A fair amount of them concluded that Parker had blown a rare opportunity—not necessarily to say the right thing, but to say something more appropriate about his personal circumstances and how they relate to his industry's reaction to the controversy.

Within 24 hours of the now-infamous press conference, the headlines came: "Parker Dodges Past Rape Allegation Questions," wrote the Toronto Star. "Nate Parker Deflects Rape Allegation Questions," wrote the Guardian. "Nate Parker Interview Cut Short" wrote Entertainment Weekly. "That episode from 1999 largely remained the elephant in the room," wrote The New York Times.

The idea of separating the art from the artist is nothing new, but the people who make movies don't get to live by their own rules, expecting consumers to shell out millions of dollars to see those movies while remaining silent about whose pockets their money is going into.

Parker's film received rousing ovations at all of its screenings in Toronto. But, until Parker has a more cogent conversation about his past and present, I'm afraid that when people mention his name or his work, more than a few will add: "Yeah, but..."

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