Todd Williamson/Getty
September 11, 2016 11:45 AM

Nate Parker faced the renewed interest in his 1999 Penn State University rape case at a Q&A for The Birth of a Nation on Sunday, asking that his personal life not detract from his costars’ performances in the film.

Parker, who directed, produced and stars in the movie, which recounts the 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner, told reporters at the Toronto International Film Festival that “there’s no one person that makes the film.”

“We had over 400 people involved in this project,” Parker said. “I would encourage everyone to remember that personal life aside, I’m just one person… I think it’s equally important that everyone on stage have an opportunity to get any reward that comes to them for their work.”

The Birth of a Nation earned rave reviews when it first debuted at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, leading to an unprecedented $17.5 million purchase by Fox Searchlight.

In recent months, though, Parker’s passion project has been overshadowed by resurfaced reports regarding his involvement in the rape case, and the recent revelation that his accuser committed suicide in 2012.

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The then-18-year-old woman had accused Parker and his friend Jean Celestin – who is listed as a collaborator on Birth of a Nation – of sexually assaulting her. Parker was charged, tried and subsequently acquitted in 2001. Celestin, who was also charged, was convicted and sentenced to six to 12 months in prison. A judge ordered a second trial following an appeal, and the case was tossed out in 2005 after the accuser decided not to testify.

Parker, 36, previously has said he was “filled with profound sorrow” when he learned about the woman’s death, and wrote on Facebook that he looks back “on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”

Asked by a reporter why he didn’t apologize to his accuser, Parker pushed back, saying, “This is a forum for the film, this is a forum for the other people sitting on this stage. I do not own it. It is not mine.”

“I don’t want to hijack this with my personal life. I want to make sure we are honoring this film,” he said, after asserting, “I’ve addressed this a few times and I’m sure I’ll continue to address it in different ways moving forward.”

Parker’s costars also addressed the controversy at Sunday’s Q&A in Toronto. Penelope Ann Miller – who in the film portrays Elizabeth Turner, the mother of Nat’s owner, Sam Turner, and who takes young Nat under her wing – said, “I just want to say that to me, this isn’t the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story.”

Other cast members pushed for more attention on the film’s message, rather than Parker’s past.

Nate Parker (foreground) in The Birth of a Nation
Jahi Chikwendiu

Said costar Aunjanue Ellis, who plays Nancy Turner, Nat’s mother, “There is the art and there is the artist, and they are two different things.”

“Whatever issue you have, whatever apprehension, bring it with you to the theater, get your ticket and bring that apprehension with you to the theater,” she continued, “because we need our art to tell us who we are, because we are living in a system where we are being told who we are not … Bring that and then let us talk about it.”

Costar Gabrielle Union, a sexual assault survivor who has spoken publicly about sexual violence, previously vowed she would not take allegations against Parker “lightly.” At the Toronto Q&A, she called the film an inclusive “movement,” noting, “That includes people who fight back against sexual violence.”

Union’s character Esther doesn’t speak any lines, and appears onscreen only briefly. In the film, Esther is sexually assaulted.

“I thought it was more important to be the symbol that people can recognize to put the face to voicelessness and powerlessness that sexual assault leaves us with,” Union said of her silent role.

At the film’s TIFF debut on Friday, Parker and his cast were met with a standing ovation. Of the film’s subject matter, Parker explained, “I was so inspired by his story that when I became an actor and decided I would start writing, I felt like this was a story that I felt historically speaking could really promote the kind of healing we need and the conversation around race.”

Birth of a Nation opens in theaters Oct. 7.

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