'Birth of a Nation' Protesters Hold Silent Vigil in Hollywood

Protest at Arclight Hollywood - H - 2016
Rebecca Ford

The protesters, honoring victims of rape and sexual assault, gathered at the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood Thursday night.

In front of the ArcLight Cinemas in Hollywood Thursday night, a small group of protesters gathered for a silent candlelight sit-in at the first screenings of Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation.

The protest was organized by the group F— Rape Culture — made up of artists, filmmakers and women in Hollywood — and began at 7 p.m., when the historical drama is scheduled to first hit theaters in previews. Around 30 to 40 people joined in the protest, planning to quietly sit for around two hours, about the length of the film. The group, honoring victims of rape and sexual assault, was mostly women, but a few men also joined in, and some of the protesters brought their dogs with them.

"We were approached by women in Hollywood who felt this case was so complicated, and the conversation came up about how to respond in a way that respected how important this film was for people of color," said Remy Holwick, the founder of F— Rape Culture at the sit-in. "We came up with a silent vigil that does nothing to condemn the makers of the film or Fox Searchlight, but does work to show that there is space for this film to both hopefully do very well and show that people of color can do very well in Hollywood — and also honor those victims of rape and sexual assault who may have been buried in this conversation a little bit."

An hour into the protest, the event's organizer Elyse Cizek, spoke briefly to the group, thanking them for attending. "This will not go unnoticed," she said.

For the past two months, Parker, the director, co-writer, producer and star of Fox Searchlight's Birth of a Nation, has been at the center of controversy stemming from a 1999 rape case that involved Parker and his Birth of a Nation co-writer Jean Celestin. They were accused of raping a Penn State classmate. Parker, who maintained the sex was consensual, was acquitted, while Celestin was convicted. (Celestin's case was later overturned on appeal.) Parker has recently spoken out about the case, which sparked more details from the trial to be released, and the media also discovered that the woman involved with the case committed suicide in 2012.

"I think that with the release of this movie there was an opportunity to be intersectional, and they missed that mark," said Stephanie Filojones, a volunteer at the event. "I think that it was a real chance for Nate Parker to recognize that the definition of consent was something that he didn't know at the time. I think that there was a chance for him to say sorry for what he did and he could have elevated the voices of survivors that don't have voices."

A few security guards kept watch over the group as they quietly sat, surrounded by small tea lights and a few larger candles.  Two police officers stood nearby, and some people passing by on their way into the theater paused to watch the group.

A statement from the group on its Facebook page reads: "We recognize the need to hold space for those celebrating the advancement of people of color in Hollywood while continuing to fight for the victims of sexual assault and rape around the world."

"The intention was not to defame or attack but to defend our right to exist," said the event's organizer Elyse Cizek to The Hollywood Reporter, by phone the morning after the protest. "We were there for the unnamed victims of sexual assault or rape that have been so overlooked in the entire process of this film coming out, and also in Hollywood as a whole."

Cizek concludes: "[Parker] has the power, right now, to back down and stop defending himself and instead start sharing what he is learning."

The Birth of a Nation will be hitting an estimated 2,100 theaters in North American this weekend, which is even more than the original 1,500 that Fox Searchlight had planned. It's tracking to earn in the $7 million to $8 million range, according to early projections. The story centers on Nat Turner, a slave that led the 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Va.