Though she has no dialogue and only appears in 12 minutes of “The Birth of a Nation,” actress Gabrielle Union was the unquestionable star of a press conference for the film held Sunday during the Toronto Film Festival.
Doubling down on a powerful op-ed she wrote prior to the festival, Union roused journalists at the Fairmont Hotel with comments on surviving rape, criticism that she betrayed her director Nate Parker, the Black Lives Matter movement, sexism, the universal conversation that “Birth” invites — and even Ryan Lochte.
“We’ve always said from the very beginning, we’re not creating a movie — we’re creating a movement,” Union said. “There’s going to be a lot of heated, uncomfortable, awkward conversations but that’s the only way we can hope to have evolution and behavioral shifts.”
Her position differs greatly from Parker, who deflected questions about his 17-year-old rape case, reminding everyone that the event was set to discuss the film he wrote, produced, directed and starred in. Union’s remarks, however, were so swift and commanding that one reporter whispered, “she’s taking us to church.”
Union’s outspokenness is not just a welcome shake-up to the festival circuit and the politeness surrounding awards contenders — a name actress being frank about her embattled director, and a multitude of other hot topics, is a rebellion all its own.
“I heard from people I didn’t think knew I existed,” Union said when asked by TheWrap about the response to her op-ed, in which she discussed her experience with rape at age 19.
“I walked into … the InStyle party last night and [Universal Pictures Chairman] Donna Langley got me from the door. People hugging me, high-fiving me,” she said of a Saturday event in Toronto.
She did allude to naysayers, estimating her support at “about 90 percent. Five percent feel I threw Nate under the bus, and five percent feel I’m a rape apologist.” She suggested the remaining audience get together and work it out.
The panel fielded several questions about reengaging an audience that may have been turned off by Parker’s past. The director demurred, saying “no one person makes a movie,” and urged moviegoers to support the work of his collaborators.
Again, Union charged directly at the question where her director sidestepped.
“Nat Turner was rooted in a place of faith that helped subjugate and oppress his people, the people that looked like him,” Union said of the real-life early activist that Parker plays in the film. “But once he knew better — he did better. So that’s what this movie is trying to inspire.”
Union said all people oppressed by corrupt systems can come together around “Birth” — that the film is open to people fighting back against sexual violence, those dissatisfied with treatment of returning troops, mental health issues, early childhood education, trans violence and legislation over bathroom use across the country.
“This movie is for you as well,” Union said.
She called up #BlackLivesMatter by comparing the handling of Olympian Ryan Lochte’s Rio Olympics incident to the shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice.
“If you are confused as to why Ryan Lochte was called a child, referred to as a kid, and was celebrated and rewarded with a ‘Dancing With the Stars’ appearance, but you’re wondering why Tamir Rice was never referred to as child, and was murdered within seconds for acting like a child? And you have a problem with that? This film is for you as well,” she said.
Lochte was dismissed as a “man-child” when he embellished a run-in with Brazilian police during the Summer Olympics, a lie that enraged that government and embarrassed our own. Rice was gunned down in 2014, after being reported to police for looking suspicious on a park swing and playing with a toy gun.
“If you’re a decent human being who wants to take part in a conversation, at the very least, about the things that bug the crap out of you, this movie is for you. I hope you don’t sit it out,” Union said.
Lastly, Union called on the legacy of Turner as a reminder for what she defines as true patriotism.
“There’s a reason Nat Turner is being erased from history. What about Colin Kaepernick and Brandon Marshall and Megan Rapinoe, who took a knee not to disrespect police or armed forces, but to make a statement?” she asked the press of the athletes currently under fire for protesting the national anthem.
“There’s nothing more American or patriotic than resistance,” she concluded.