Birth of a Nation Earns Standing Ovation in Toronto as Nate Parker Makes First Appearance Since Rape Case Focus
Director, actor, writer and producer Nate Parker made his first public appearance after renewed attention on his involvement in a rape case trial
The 36-year-old filmmaker was at TIFF for the premiere of his film The Birth of a Nation – a passion project Parker wrote, directed, produced and starred in.
Introducing the movie, Parker said: “I want to thank you for your time and for coming to see our film. This film has been a labor of love for us and we are desperately proud to present it to you.”
The film later received a prolonged standing ovation from the crowd.
The movie recounts the 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner, an African-American preacher who convinced his fellow slaves to turn against their masters.
“When I learned about him I felt like, ‘Man this is someone who should be celebrated along the line of the Patrick Henrys, the Jeffersons and our forefathers,’ ” Parker explained during a post-screening Q&A. “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,”
While a student at Penn State University in 1999, he and his friend Jean McGianni Celstin – who is listed as a collaborator on Birth of a Nation – were both accused of sexually assaulting a then-18-year-old female classmate.
Parker was charged, tried and subsequently acquitted. 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.
In August, Variety reported that Parker’s rape accuser committed suicide in 2012 at the age of 30.
For more on the Toronto International Film Festival, go to PEOPLE.com/tiff
RELATED VIDEO: Nate Parker Opens Up About 1999 Rape Case
“I am filled with profound sorrow,” Parker wrote on Facebook after the news broke, adding: “As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom.”
Parker talked in the Q&A about how he’s embraced his faith recently.
“I’ve become a person very close to my faith, but I go to what people might call a black church. It’s a little different than what some might call a white church,” he said. I often ask myself like why is it that we talk about this faithful, sacrificial, loving God and this Jesus, but we can’t even worship in the same space. I thought to myself, is there historical context.”
“I wanted to examine, you know, this faith that said you’re my property, you’re my shadow and I have a cognitive dissonance that’s in place that won’t enable me to acknowledge that, and then there are people that, but we are people of god and we are going to this heaven. I mean I don’t know I’ve never been to heaven, but I would suspect that it’s not a black heaven and a white heaven. I just wanted to be honest.”
In addition to Friday’s premiere, Parker will attend a press conference at the festival on Sunday, along with cast members Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and others.
Birth of a Nation opens in theaters Oct. 7.
• Reporting by JODI GUGLIELMI