At the Toronto International Film Festival on Friday night, two back-to-back screenings of Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation were met with standing ovations from both audiences. The crowd was there to see the first festival screening of the lightning-rod film since its Sundance premiere, as well as writer-director-producer-star Nate Parker and 17 members of his cast and crew, who joined him onstage for post-film Q&A sessions.
Both the questions and the answers at the 9PM show tended to ramble — one audience member took at least three minutes to ask, in essence, "What can white people do to help support people of color?" and in return, she got a meandering and not entirely relevant response from Birth co-star Armie Hammer. At another point, co-star Gabrielle Union spoke at length in defense of San Francisco 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick, and his protests during the National Anthem at football games, to scattered applause. When it came to the film, though, the cast and crew members who spoke were to some on message, defending Parker as a good man and a generous director in the wake of the renewed questions over his college rape case, which was not directly addressed during the conversation.
But one of the questions for Parker got a particularly direct and forceful response. An audience member asked Parker what message he wanted Birth of a Nation to convey to audience members, "in the context of the current presidential election and the Black Lives Matter movement." Parker’s response, transcribed:
Someone asked me once, "What do you think the difference is between the civil-rights movement of old, and the current civil-rights movement?" And I had to think about it. What I came out with was, they were willing to die for the change they wanted to see. I look at the story of Nat Turner — I don’t look at someone that sacrificed for a future he’d be able to enjoy. He gave his life for future generations… Nat Turner had an axe, broom handles, that’s all he had. We have much more powerful tools. So I think we should all look at this story, in the sense that this was one person who stood against 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? What are we willing to sacrifice for what we want our children, and our children’s children, to enjoy?
There’s this quote, the Bible says "A good man leaves an inheritance for his children's children." And so often, in this very lenient society, we don’t think that with every breath we take, we’re getting closer to the end of our lives. So it’s about what we leave for our children’s children… What do you see in your community that’s unjust, and what are you willing to do to stand against that thing? Whether it be voting — we have a big, massive voting drive — whether it be [dealing with] that person that may not be the most kind in his words when it comes to racial sensitivity, or whatever it is. I think we all have to look to ourselves to see what we can be changing, in terms of moving forward. What do we require of ourselves? And I’d love to get answers from other people, but I think that the first question has to be internal. What can we do to affect the kind of change we want to see, and how can we be that change?
So much of the conversation around the film now seems like preprepared talking points and deflections, endlessly repeated, with minor variations. (Parker is a good man, many people worked on this film besides Parker, we're just honored to be here.) So it was actually a relief to get so directly back to what makes the film relevant, and to find a topic where Parker seemed not just on firm ground, but ready to speak with the force of personal conviction. And it was a relief to see him reflecting larger issues outside of his own current battles. It's unclear whether the Birth of a Nation conversation will ever fully return to being about the film itself, but this at least felt like one helpful step forward.