Gabrielle Union, one of the stars of The Birth of a Nation, is telling moviegoers that she supports their choice to boycott the recently released slave revolt film. It’s a fairly unprecedented move, but one that’s more than understandable given Union’s own past and the controversy surrounding the film’s director and lead actor, Nate Parker.
As 19-year-old students at Penn State University in 1999, Parker and his friend Jean Celestin (who enjoys a writing credit on The Birth of a Nation), were charged with raping a fellow student. Parker was found not guilty of all charges, but Celestin was convicted of sexual assault and sentenced to two to four years in prison. Celestin’s conviction was later overturned when he successfully appealed, arguing he had ineffective counsel. The female accuser committed suicide in 2012. Parker has maintained his innocence.
Details of the case have been public for years, but were not widely known until they were resurfaced by a Variety story about the film in August. Since then, all those involved with the film—its female actors especially—have been put in the unenviable position of having to promote it while addressing the allegations against Parker.
Union is herself a survivor of sexual assault. In a cover story for November’s issue of Essence magazine, Union said she empathizes with those who refuse to see the film because of Parker’s past.
“As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult,” she said. “Every victim or survivor, I believe you. I support you. I support you if you don’t want to see the film. I absolutely understand and respect that. I can’t sell the film.”
In the film, which dramatizes Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion, Union plays a slave named Esther who is brutally raped by her master. The actress penned an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times last month, explaining that she wants to use her platform as one of the film’s stars to talk about sexual violence. Other female cast members have also spoken out about re-evaluating their roles in the film in light of the allegations against Parker.
Reviews for the film were glowing following its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival in January. It immediately became a major awards contender, and critics hoped it might finally inject some much-needed diversity into the Oscars. Fox Searchlight bought its distribution rights for $17.5 million, the most ever for a film coming out of Sundance.
Parker has done neither himself nor The Birth of a Nation any favors while making the interview rounds to promote his film. He has generally appeared unapologetic, while trying to deflect the spotlight back onto his film, which he said was bigger than any one person. “I was falsely accused. I went to court. I was vindicated,” Parker told Anderson Cooper on CBS’s 60 Minutes last month. “I feel terrible that this woman isn’t here. Her family had to deal with that. But as I sit here, an apology is…no.”
As coverage of the allegations against Parker has ramped up, reviews for the film have been decidedly less positive. It has also struggled at the box office, opening to just $7.1 million in ticket sales its first weekend in theaters (Oct. 7).