Art vs. artist: Can The Birth of a Nation escape the storm around Nate Parker?

Can and should a work of art be considered separate from its maker? That's the question at the centre of the ongoing furor surrounding Nate Parker and threatens to overshadow The Birth of a Nation, his high-profile drama screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

'I definitely don't want to hijack this with my personal life,' Parker says of rape trial controversy

The Birth of a Nation director, writer, producer and star Nate Parker, centre, gestures to the crowd as he arrives for his film's first public screening at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival in Toronto on Friday. Can the lauded slave rebellion drama escape a furor sparked by the filmmaker's past? (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Can and should a work of art be considered separate from its artist? That's the question at the centre of the ongoing furor surrounding Nate Parker and threatens to overshadow The Birth of a Nation, his high-profile drama screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.

Over the past few days in Toronto, Parker has regularly dodged questions about the 2001 rape trial from his college days and consistently tried to refocus discussion on his movie — a massive project that involved more than 400 people.

"No one person makes a film.… I would just encourage everyone to remember, personal life aside, I'm just one person," Parker told a news conference hosted by his distributor Fox Searchlight on Sunday morning, two days after Birth of a Nation received extended ovations at its enthusiastic public debut at TIFF.

"This is a forum for the film.… I definitely don't want to hijack this with my personal life," he added.

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CBC's Eli Glasner asks The Birth of a Nation director if controversy about his past actions has devalued upcoming film

"This isn't the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story… I think it's an important story to learn about," cast member Penelope Ann Miller said during the news conference.

"I hope people just give us a chance."

Hollywood ascent derailed

A labour of love that took years to realize, The Birth of a Nation is an intense and visceral drama about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion. It was the toast of Sundance in January, with Parker — the film's star, director, producer and co-writer — winning several key awards and scoring a record $17.5 million US distribution deal with Fox. It all took place against the backdrop of the #OscarsSoWhite outrage that embroiled Hollywood.

Armie Hammer, left, and Nate Parker appear in a scene from The Birth of a Nation, which was the toast of the Sundance Film Festival in January. (Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute via Associated Press)

Buzz for The Birth of a Nation and the debut director followed — with some even predicting Oscar accolades — but Parker's rise came to an abrupt halt in mid-August when his sexual assault trial resurfaced in industry media.

In 1999, Parker and his Penn State University roommate Jean Celestin — credited on The Birth of a Nation as a co-writer — were accused of raping a woman in their apartment. Parker was ultimately acquitted and Celestin, initially found guilty of sexual assault, saw his conviction overturned when the complainant declined to testify again.

The woman committed suicide in 2012.

Parker has addressed his past, the trial and the controversy itself only a handful of times, including with a Facebook post (in which he said he was "filled with profound sorrow" to learn of the woman's suicide) and after a late-August film screening in Los Angeles. There, the father of five admitted — unprompted — that he had "objectified" women in his younger days.

There's been much industry discussion about whether the movie's box office and awards season chances have been irreparably damaged and a host of op-ed pieces on why the writer would not watch The Birth of a Nation.

"It's unfair," Fabienne Colas, founder of black film festivals in Toronto and Montreal, said of the continued focus on Parker's past.

"When you made mistakes when you were a teenager or something happened or you've been incarcerated, does that mean you're not entitled to making things right again after that?"

Unfair scrutiny?

Colas feels racism factors into the current storm around Parker, whom she believes is being scrutinized more harshly than, say, Woody Allen (whose movies she admittedly loves).

Veteran New York filmmaker Allen — who has been accused of sexual abuse by several of his children and is married to the adopted daughter of his former partner Mia Farrow — continues to see his movies selected for major film festivals, screened widely in theatres and consistently getting financed, Colas noted.

It's going to be a lot of uncomfortable, awkward and heated conversation but that's the only way we can have evolution.- Actress Gabrielle Union

For The Birth of a Nation actress Aunjanue Ellis, "art and artist are two different things," with Pablo Picasso and Miles Davis just two famous figures who made brilliant art, but also had complicated morals (both were abusive and assaulted women in their lives).

"It is correct for there to be the outrage for whatever happened in an artist's personal life.… We would not be doing our jobs as critics, as good citizens of the world, if we didn't talk about that," she said.

Still, she said it "would be a shame" if The Birth of a Nation is dismissed because of the current cloud of negative attention.

Publicity missteps made by The Birth of a Nation's distributor, Fox Searchlight, helped fuel the incendiary situation, according to public relations and communications expert Deborah Knight.

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PR and communications expert Deborah Knight on the 3 things that might have helped avert the ongoing furor over Birth of a Nation director, writer, producer and star Nate Parker.

"I always recommend to clients that you actually address the situation by showing some kind of remorse [and] talk about what you're going to do to bring the issue out into the open," said the Toronto-based Knight.

"I think what happened in this situation is no one really coached [Parker]," Knight said, adding that his lack of an established, hefty fan base or a major profile in Hollywood works against him.

"He doesn't have the core fan support and it's left the studios scrambling to figure out, 'How do we gain popularity for this man, who is not only the actor [but] the producer, the director?'"

Taking the film to college campuses

The revelations about Parker's trial come amid heightened attention to campus sexual assaults, sexual violence in general and how law enforcement and the justice system treat cases of sexual assault.

On Sunday, Parker said that, as far as he knows, plans to take The Birth of a Nation on a college campus tour are still moving forward.

"Healing comes from an honest confrontation with our past," he said. "We want to deal with injustice everywhere, wherever it stands."

'Let's have this very uncomfortable discussion': Gabrielle Union addresses Nate Parker rape allegations

7 years ago
Duration 1:57
The Birth of a Nation star tells CBC some good can come of addressing director's controversial past

Gabrielle Union turns in a silent, supporting performance in The Birth of a Nation, yet the high-profile actress's voice is among the most powerful to emerge in recent days.

Union, who was raped at gunpoint at 19, wrote a poignant op-ed this month about her confusion upon learning about the accusations against Parker.

Though she's largely received overwhelming support since publishing her essay — including from a total stranger who slipped a note to her in the washroom at an airport — Union said she has also been criticized for "throwing Nate under a bus" and alternately branded a "rape apologist."

Ultimately, however, she feels the film — and the ensuing controversy — can be part of one large, inclusive movement addressing inequality, "pushing back against oppression" of all kind and including those fighting against sexual violence.

Actress Gabrielle Union, seen second right with (from left) Star Jones, Birth of a Nation co-stars Aja Naomi King and Nate Parker in Miami in June, has emerged as one of the most powerful voices amid the continuing debate over the movie and its filmmaker. (Gustavo Caballero/Getty Images)

"It's going to be a lot of uncomfortable, awkward and heated conversation but that's the only way we can have evolution and hope to have behavioural shifts, which is what Nat Turner was all about," Union said.

"He was rooted in faith that kept him in bondage — that kept his brothers and sisters in bondage — but once he knew better, he did better. That's what this movie is trying to inspire: help us all to know better, so we can do better."

With files from Eli Glasner and Nigel Hunt