The Birth of a Nation was shown at the Toronto Film Festival on Sunday, and though she doesn’t have any lines in the film, Gabrielle Union continues to have some of the most nuanced things to say about director Nate Parker’s rape case.
Earlier in September, Union wrote an op-ed for the L.A. Times, explaining how being sexually assaulted has, in some ways, shaped her life and perception of the world. She speaks about her internal conflict after reading the transcript of Parker’s trial, at the end of which he was acquitted, because it left her without any definitive answers.
In The Birth of a Nation, Union plays a slave who is used for the entertainment of visiting slave owners, and is raped by them in the film. Her character doesn’t speak, and according to Jada Yuan of Vulture, she had asked that the few lines she had be removed, saying:
“It’s just more symbolic of the lack of control or power that black women had, and have, over our own bodies,” she said. “As a rape survivor, I know how powerful and voiceless I felt myself for a very, very long time, and the shame and the rage. It’s only relatively recently that I found the power to have a voice. But part of that comes with the entitlement of celebrity. Our ancestors were never afforded a voice, so to me, it was important that she stay voiceless so you really get that they didn’t have one.”
During a post-premiere Q&A, Union seems to have decided that promoting the film and sharing its messages about America’s deep-rooted history of racial violence is the priority, though she doesn’t shy away from talking about sexual violence: it’s just somewhat distanced from Nate Parker.
She says, “If you were confused why Ryan Lochte was called a child, was 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 a child but murdered within seconds for acting like a child, and you have a problem with that... this movie is for you as well. If you’re a decent human being who wants to take part in a conversation at the very least about things that bug the crap out of you, this movie is for you as well, and I hope you don’t sit it out.”
She also points to the fact that within the film, her character’s husband, played by Colman Domingo, waits patiently for her return knowing what she has faced and accepting her back in a way that Union believes many sexual assault survivors fear they will not be in their families and communities. In terms of response to her op-ed, Union says that it has largely been overwhelmingly positive:
That’s about 90 percent. Five percent feels I threw Nate under the bus and 5 percent feels I’m a rape apologist. I strongly encourage those two 5 percents to talk to each other. I think everyone takes something different away from the conversation. Every time I talk about sexual violence I want to puke. There’s never been a time in the last 23 years where I did not want to vomit, but my personal discomfort is nothing compared to being a voice for people who feel absolutely voiceless and powerless. We all want a lot of things, but the only thing we can control is ourselves.
She ends by saying that she wants sexual assault survivors to know that they’re not alone, and support is out there. She adds, “I’ll keep saying it for a long time, and I’ll continue to say it after this movie has passed. Though hopefully the movie and the movement live on.”