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Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’ Oscar tour gets off to a surrealistically uneventful start in Toronto

Watch the trailer for "The Birth of a Nation.”

For “The Birth of a Nation” director Nate Parker, the past month has been one of the most turbulent an Oscar contender has ever faced. New details involving Parker’s 15-year-old sexual-assault trial have spurred a flood of op-ed pieces — including our own, by “Birth” actress Gabrielle Union — along with questions about the Oscar race, not to mention his character.

But if such tribulations were on Parker’s — or audiences’ — minds Friday night, you wouldn’t know it from what unfolded. In two high-profile screenings at the Toronto International Film Festival, the filmmaker and his ensemble faced audiences with all of the spirit they possessed before the scandal, and none of the questions since.

“Nina Simone has this quote where she says the artist’s job is to reflect the times, and I think as artists we all got together and understood the possibility that could come from a film like this, and then we all worked hard to make it happen,” Parker said, one of several triumphant comments amid a very enthusiastic reception.

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FULL COVERAGE: Toronto International Film Festival »

Of about a dozen audience and moderator questions during the course of two screenings, none were about the allegations from when Parker was a student at Penn State; many were of the “What message do you want people to take from this film?” variety. “I’m not saying we should all go out and do what Nat Turner did,” he said. “He had an ax and a broom. We have more tools. But he stood against a system that’s oppressing people. What are we willing to give up for our children and our children’s children?”

Indeed, very few moments at either of the screenings, both of which included standing ovations, felt very different from what might have transpired before the scandal broke, validating at least for the moment distributor Fox Searchlight’s choice to pursue a business-as-usual promotion strategy with its chief Oscar contender.

TIFF is known for its generous audiences. And artistic director Cameron Bailey, who moderated both post-screening Q&As, seemed determined to plow ahead with questions about race and the movie as one would after any other festival screening.

Still, the absence of any protesters in the room or sign that ordinary viewers were thinking about the director’s character offered a striking contrast to the spirited online conversation of the past month, even as that silence in a way only seemed to underscore questions about whether Parker can, or should, carry on with the months-long Oscar tour that follows the Toronto kickoff. (Those questions will be answered more immediately at the festival with a print press conference Sunday.)

If there was a shift in strategy in evidence on Friday night, it was that Parker seemed to focus on his team a little more than in the past. Several times in each Q&A, Parker turned to the group of some 20 cast and crew onstage with him and asked them to weigh in — a switch of sorts from the press of Sundance and other times before the controversy, which focused far more on Parker’s long odyssey to make the film.

At one point, when he was talking about the importance of Turner’s story, Parker threw a question to co-star Aja Naomi King, with “Aja, do you want to speak to this?” The actress then said, “I wish I could have seen this [film] when I was in high school when I was feeling inadequate and just not enough,” noting that she was “proud to be a part of something that could give that story to some other young child.”

On the question of Turner’s legacy, co-star Roger Guenveur Smith weighed in. “I think we should know that Nat Turner wasn’t an anomaly and was part of a tradition of resistance which began in the Western Hemisphere in the year 1492,” he said,. “Nat Turner and his comrades recognized in 1831, a long time ago, that indeed, black lives do matter.”

The strategic thinking was clear: The film contains an eloquent and diverse cast, so why not put it front and center both to broaden the movie’s appeal and take some of the scrutiny off Parker?

To what extent that pivot is possible for a man who — as outspoken director, lead actor, producer, fundraiser and all-around champion — is so bound up with this movie remains to be seen.

In one case, at least, such a pivot could have been delicate. When Parker turned to Union on a question, she used it to describe a potential moment of atonement for the director. In comments that were ostensibly about Turner and racial consciousness but seemed also to be aimed at our feelings about the director, she said,. “We’re all capable of evolution,” adding, “until he knew better he didn’t do better.”

(Union also had the most political moment of the night when she connected the film to a different set of headlines: “If you’re wondering about Colin Kaepernick and if he’s [on] the right side of history,” she said, “there’s nothing more patriotic than resistance … that’s the story and legacy of Nat Turner.”)

To anyone with even a remote knowledge of Parker’s rape trial and its aftermath, the fact that it wasn’t addressed at all played out like a slightly surreal alternative universe, portending an award season in which questions will hover over many of Parker’s many appearances even when no one brings them up.

Meanwhile, whenever Parker brought up faith or the Bible, it cast him on the moral high ground, a position that inadvertently but inevitably leads listeners to thoughts of the director’s own character.

Parker did steer the conversation back to himself at one point — sort of.

“The director is black,” the filmmaker said. “That speaks to something about who’s telling the story, who’s controlling the narrative.”

With the “Birth” tour set to roll out, who will get to control its director’s narrative still remains to be seen.

Mark.Olsen@latimes.com

Steve.Zeitchik@latimes.com

@ZeitchikLAT

ALSO:

Gabrielle Union, herself a sexual assault survivor, on playing a woman who is raped in Nate Parker’s ‘The Birth of a Nation’

AFI cancels ‘Birth of a Nation’ screening after Nate Parker controversy. Will others in Hollywood follow suit?

With a cloud over ‘Birth of a Nation,’ which awards contenders might avert #OscarsSoWhite3?


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