The world was ready to hear Nate Parker's story, but Nate Parker wasn't quite ready to tell it. That, at least, was the message delivered at a packed Sunday morning Toronto press conference for The Birth of a Nation, the hotly debated slave-revolt drama of which Parker is the producer, director, writer and star.Mr. Parker and his cast mates were in town for its international premiere at the Toronto International Film Festival, and while the press conference was intended to highlight the forgotten legacy of African-American hero Nat Turner – and surely give it a marketing edge in the increasingly competitive and ever-lucrative awards-season race – industry watchers were only really interested in the event for one reason: Would Mr. Parker address his judicial history, which has been following his movie around like a toxic cloud since late August?
It was nearly a month ago that reports surfaced of the 1999 case in which Mr. Parker was charged with sexually assaulting a fellow student while attending Penn State University – an offence he was acquitted of. (Mr. Parker's roommate and Nation co-writer, Jean Celestin, was found guilty of raping the then-18-year-old woman, but he appealed, and had the verdict thrown out after she refused to testify at a second trial. The woman, who has never been identified, killed herself in 2012.) The moment the story broke, The Birth of a Nation was placed under an industry microscope.
Could the buzzy drama – which wowed critics at Sundance and so impressed Fox Searchlight that the studio paid a record $17.5-million (U.S.) for it – weather the storm of controversy surrounding Mr. Parker's history, which is especially problematic as the film's narrative pivots on a scene of sexual assault? Would audiences be able to separate the art from the conversation surrounding the artist? And would Parker, who has mostly stayed silent on the issue except for a handful of vague interviews and social-media posts – "I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom," he wrote on Facebook – choose to further dissect his past?
These were all questions that the film industry demanded answers for as the film touched down at TIFF. But Mr. Parker was not willing to oblige.
At the press conference Sunday – held at the Fairmont Royal York hotel by Fox Searchlight, and thus not an official TIFF press conference – Mr. Parker largely sidestepped the issue, even though it was brought forward several times.
The first instance came from the panel's own moderator, Essence magazine's Cori Murray – perhaps a canny way of addressing the issue head-on before questions were opened to the assembled press. "Now what people are doing is judging the film before seeing it, which is not fair. What do you say to those people?" Ms. Murray asked.
Mr. Parker chose to sidestep the question, answering: "I would say, you know, first of all, I've addressed it. In future forums, I'll address it more. The reality is there's no one person that makes a film. Over 400 people were involved in the project. We were gone for almost 15 weeks. … I would encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I'm just one person and the way we ran our set, there was no hierarchy."
Once the event was opened to the press more than a half hour after it started, though, The New York Times' Cara Buckley directly brought up the issue again, asking Mr. Parker, as the film is about moral accountability, why he has not apologized to the family of his accuser, and if he might take this opportunity to do so. Once again, Mr. Parker failed to answer the question directly.
"This is a forum for the film and for the other people sitting on this stage. It's not mine. I don't own it. So I don't want to hijack this with my personal life," he said. "Respectfully, I want to thank again the Toronto International Film Festival for allowing us to be here. And I want to continue celebrating the 400-plus people who made this possible today."
Mr. Parker's assembled cast also helped redirect the conversation away from Mr. Parker and back to the historic importance of the film.
"There is the art and there is the artist and they are two different things," said Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Turner's mother in the film. "My sitting in this chair right now is because I'm from a place where … they explicitly take out stories of Nat Turner. They call slaves 'workers.' They do this explicitly, because they don't want us to know who we are."
The event followed a frenzied weekend of promotional exercises for the film, some less complicated than others. When the movie made its TIFF premiere at the Winter Garden theatre on Friday night, for example, it was greeted with an enthusiastic reception – the audience laughed and gasped in all the expected spots, and awarded the cast and crew a prolonged standing ovation after the end credits rolled. (It should be noted, though, that the audience was also heavily peppered with employees and well-wishers of the movie's various production companies, which secure blocks of seats for such high-profile screenings.)
Cameron Bailey, TIFF's artistic director, moderated a postscreening Q&A, though none of the questions touched on Mr. Parker's personal history, and the two brief audience questions allowed also stuck to the film itself, rather than the filmmaker. (Mr. Celestin, the film's co-writer, was absent from the premiere and the press conference.)
But on Saturday, when Mr. Parker and his cast were doing a round of television interviews, the mood was different. During an interview with the CBC, Mr. Parker cut the discussion short after being repeatedly asked about the rape charge.
Sunday's press conference wrapped with no definitive word from Mr. Parker about his history, how he thinks it may or may not affect the film's performance or anything addressing what most members of the film world are debating back and forth as the crucial fall film season looms. And so The Birth of a Nation leaves Toronto much the same way it came in – a question mark.