In a brave move, an hour-long news conference for Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation was held during the Toronto Film Festival Sunday. While most promotion and press for the film has been halted since the resurfacing of the 1999 rape accusation against the actor and director, all was fair game this past weekend. That is, until Parker sidestepped a question that’s been on most of our minds.
According to The Huffington Post, “New York Times reporter Cara Buckley asked whether Parker felt he should apologize to his alleged rape victim, who took her own life in 2012.” And to that question, he responded:
“I’ve addressed this a few times, and I’m sure I’ll address it again. This is a forum for the film. This is a forum for the other people that are sitting on the stage. It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It does not belong to me, so I definitely don’t want to hijack this movie. I do want to make sure we are honoring this film.”
That intention is all well and good, but we’d be remiss if we didn’t point out the fact that, yet again, Parker refused to do what many of us consider a necessary penance in this situation: apologize.
When Variety first brought the rape accusation and subsequent trial back to life again one month ago, Parker’s first response was one of defensiveness, harping on the fact that 17 years ago, he experienced a very painful moment in his life, with no acknowledgement of what his accuser was put through as a result of his actions, whether legally defined as rape or not. When news of his accuser’s suicide came to light a few days later, there was a greater air of remorse, yet the closest he came to any admission of wrongdoing was saying, “I look back on that time, my indignant attitude and my heartfelt mission to prove my innocence with eyes that are more wise with time. I see now that I may not have shown enough empathy even as I fought to clear my name. Empathy for the young woman and empathy for the seriousness of the situation I put myself and others in.”
But empathy and an apology are not one in the same, and in refusing to do the latter, Parker has only shown he is still on that same heartfelt mission to prove his innocence. Even if in Parker’s mind (and the eyes of the law) he’s innocent, apologizing for what he put his accuser through during the two-year span between the 1999 incident and the 2001 trial doesn’t make him any more guilty than he already is in the court of public opinion. It’s not enough to say “no one who calls himself a man of faith should even be in that situation” or “there are wounds that neither time nor words can heal.” “I’m sorry” is a good place to start and Parker hasn’t come anywhere close to uttering that humble phrase.
Birth of a Nation has already been hijacked; it’s too late to pretend the past transgressions of Parker and his co-writer Jean Celestin won’t leave a permanent scar on this film, much like they did their accuser. Until Parker can apologize for that and openly recognize the pain his accuser endured as a direct result of his actions rather than an obscure turn of events, most of us will continue to have the same amount of empathy for him today as he had for his alleged victim in 1999: none.