Toronto: Nate Parker Introduces 'Birth of a Nation' to Big Applause, No Heckling

Parker, making his first major industry appearance since details of a 1999 rape case resurfaced, took the stage at two screenings Friday night.
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Nate Parker

Nate Parker's introduction of The Birth of a Nation at the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night was well received inside the Winter Garden Theater, where the movie was set to screen.

The writer/director/star earned a round of applause from the full house when he was brought on stage to introduce and speak about the film. "This has been such a labor of love for us and we are just desperately proud to present it to you," he said, receiving more applause before departing the stage as the lights went down and the movie began to play.

Parker and his cast left the theater to introduce a second screening, set to begin an hour later, at the near-by Elgin Theater.

Sending Birth to Toronto for a series of five screenings and having Parker accompany it (for a press conference and to the introduce the film) represented a high-risk, high-reward prospect for Fox Searchlight, given the attention that has surrounded the 1999 rape case in which Parker was involved. 

There was the risk that the controversy could draw attention away from the film and towards Parker. Numerous Academy members have told The Hollywood Reporter they will not even see the film, let alone consider voting for it. But if things went without incident and the pic was cheered as it was in Park City, where it first debuted, Searchlight may be able to revive the film's awards prospects.

Parker, whose movie won both the grand jury and audience prizes at the Sundance Film Festival in January and was sold to Fox Searchlight for a Sundance-record $17.5 million, has been at the center of firestorm since the filmmaker granted a series of interviews in mid-August in which he addressed rape allegations made against him and his friend Jean Celestin, when they were students at Penn State in 1999. Parker was found not guilty, while Celestin, with whom Parker later co-authored the story for Birth, was found guilty of sexual assault, but that verdict was overturned. The victim committed suicide in 2012.

After the screening, the film received a 90-second ovation, and later a full two-minute standing ovation (rare for the Toronto fest) as most of the cast walked on stage. Parker himself was seen wiping away tears. 

During the post-screening Q&A, several castmembers, including Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer and Penelope Ann Miller, spoke about how terrific Parker was to work with. The moderator also took two questions from the audience, but no one from the audience mentioned Parker's recently resurfaced rape case or any controversy surrounding the filmmaker. 

Watch the Q&A below. 

The second public screening of Birth of a Nation at the Elgin Theater, which ended at around 11 p.m., passed without interruptions or disruption, either inside or outside the theater.

"This has been such a labor of love for us and we are just desperately proud to present it to you,” Parker again told the audience when introducing the cast and his film to the festival audience before the overlapping Elgin screening began. After the final credits rolled, Parker returned to the stage and personally welcomed his cast and the film's producers to his side amid a sustained standing ovation.

Parker and the cast then took questions from Cameron Bailey, the festival's artistic director. Parker, when asked to reveal what message he intended with the film in answer to current racial tensions in the U.S. around the Black Lives Matter movement and the U.S. presidential election, called for personal and political change.

"They were willing to die for what they wanted to achieve, what they wanted to see," Parker said of the violent slave rebellion depicted in the film.

"When I look at Nat Turner, I look at someone that sacrificed for a future he couldn't enjoy. He gave his life for future generations," the director added about his film's hero, before insisting Turner's followers only had their hands and axes to battle the injustices of their day. 

"We have much more powerful tools," Parker added. "So I think we should all look at this film in the sense that this was a system that was oppressing people. And if we can relate to that in 2016, we must ask ourselves, 'What are we willing to give up, to sacrifice, for what we want our children to enjoy?'" Parker said in a call to action.

"When we look at our political situation, at Black Lives Matter, what do you see in your community that is unjust, and what are you willing to do to stand against that thing?" the helmer added.

In response to a question from the audience, Gabrielle Union came closest to talking about Parker's personal past when, after intimating she and the director had possibly made up, the actress talked about life being about evolving into better people.

"We're all capable of evolution," she said. "That's why everyone up here is on this stage. It's about personal evolution. Did I leave this job in a better place than when I started?" she questioned. "I was firmly committed to not doing the best projects. Now I can't go back," Union added about her career ambitions. 

"You commit yourself to an evolution and humble ourselves that we don't have all the answers, that there's things we firmly root ourselves in, and may not be the right course, and may not be on the right side of history," Union said at one point.

"So if you're wondering about Colin Kaepernick," the actress said, referring to the NFL player who recently chose not to stand for the American national anthem to protest racial injustices, "he's on the right side of history. There's nothing more patriotic than resistance," Union added to another round of sustained applause. 

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