'A beautiful place with a painful history." That is how Cameron Bailey, artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival, described the city's Winter Garden theatre on Friday night, alluding to it once being the home to minstrel shows. But Bailey could have also been talking about the film that was just about to enjoy its international premiere, Nate Parker's controversial The Birth of a Nation. Because while the drama contains some beautiful images that sear themselves in your brain, it, too, carries with it a complicated past.
Parker is the director, writer and star behind the film, which tells the story of Nat Turner, a preacher and slave who led a violent revolt against white slave owners in 1830s Virginia. When the film premiered at Sundance earlier this winter, it was praised as the next possible Oscar winner – a diverse drama that would pull a traditionally diverse-averse Hollywood into the 21st century. But Parker is also making headlines due to the resurfacing of an old court case against him.
In 1999, Parker and his Penn State roommate (and Nation co-writer) Jean Celestin were charged with sexually assaulting a fellow female student. Parker was acquitted, though Celestin was found guilty (but appealed, and had the verdict thrown out after the woman refused to testify at a second trial). It was also revealed that the woman killed herself years after the incident.
So with that toxic cloud hanging over Parker, industry watchers were keeping a close eye on how the film would be received at its TIFF premiere. Would the city's notoriously favourable audiences embrace it wholeheartedly, choosing to separate the art from whatever one might think of the artist? Would the film's first big night on the international stage also include a conversation about Parker's legal history? Would either scenario affect its chances in the awards-race conversation? In other words, the event was tailor-made for headlines.
But, as it turned out, not of the provocative type.
The film was instead received generously by the TIFF audience Friday night, with laughter and gasps in all the right places. When the end credits rolled, there was also sustained applause – though no standing ovation, until Parker and almost the entire cast took the stage (Celestin was notably absent, though co-star Gabrielle Union, who recently penned an op-ed dissecting her complicated feelings about Parker, was on-stage).
"I appreciate that more than you can possibly imagine," Parker told the gracious crowd as he took the stage. (Though it should also be noted the audience was peppered with friends-of-the-film, as there was heavy applause during the various production company credits – not something strictly public festival goers usually do.)
Bailey threw Parker and his cast a few mild questions about the film's production, but was silent on Parker's own history or the industry chatter following the film.
"This was a story that, historically speaking, could promote the type of healing we need," Parker addressed the crowd.
Only two audience questions were allowed. One focused on how important it was for Parker to highlight Turner's legacy, while the other was a typical TIFF audience question – in that it was not a question at all, but instead a compliment directed Parker's way.
With that, the audience politely shuffled out of the theatre, either unaware of the headlines following Parker and the film, or unconcerned.