When actress Gabrielle Union ("Being Mary Jane") first wrote about her "The Birth of a Nation" co-star Nate Parker‘s recently-revisited 1999 rape trial, she expressed hope that the film would compel important conversations about sexual assault and consent. After the movie’s underwhelming opening weekend—which many attributed to backlash towards Parker and his handling of questions related to the case—Union said that she understands why people would want to skip the film.
"As a rape survivor and as an advocate, I cannot shy away from this responsibility because the conversation got difficult," Union says in a new Essence cover story. "I don’t want to put myself above anyone’s pain or triggers. 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."
Union, who survived a harrowing rape at gunpoint when she was 19, portrays a slave who is raped by a White master in the film. She joins two of the film’s other female stars in not judging those who choose not to watch the film. "I don’t want to diminish anyone’s feelings," Aja Naomi King ("Four"), who portrays the wife of Nat Turner and a rape survivor, told the Los Angeles Times.
Aunjanue Ellis ("Ray"), who plays Turner’s mother, told Buzzfeed News that she understands why many would avoid the film. "No matter what we feel about it, no matter what the circumstances were, the presence of this movie and the circumstances surrounding it is causing somebody pain," she said about the family of Parker’s accuser, who confirmed her 2012 suicide and continues to speak out against Parker and the film. "So that breaks my heart. But it also breaks my heart that there are a contingency, or a community, of folks who are going to stay home because they feel like to see it would be anti-feminist…. They feel that they have to stand in solidarity with the woman who was abused, and I understand that wholly."
The controversy around the 1999 case, in which "Birth" director Parker and co-writer Jean Celestin were accused and ultimately acquitted of raping a White fellow Penn State student, ultimately overshadowed the early acclaim surrounding the Nat Turner biopic. Parker affirmed his acquittal in several interviews, prompting criticism for what many deemed to be a self-centered attitude while promoting the film.