The Birth of a Nation actress says response has been overwhelmingly positive, but that the 10 percent who disagree need "to talk to each other"
“Tremendous.” That’s how actress Gabrielle Union — speaking at the Toronto Film Festival — described the response to an op-ed she wrote about her upcoming film The Birth of a Nation, the controversy surrounding director and star Nate Parker, and her own history of sexual assault. The critically lauded film, which received a standing ovation at the film festival, has become the center of a firestorm following revelations that Parker was accused and acquitted of sexual assault in 1999.
In The Birth of a Nation, Union plays a woman who is raped and stays silent afterwards. For her Los Angeles Times op-ed, she wrote of how she was raped at gunpoint in a Payless Shoes—and said she took the role because she thought it was important to represent the lack of power and control that women, especially black women, have over their own bodies. She expressed confusion and concern over the allegations against Turner by a woman who committed suicide four years ago.
“As important and ground-breaking as this film is, I cannot take these allegations lightly,” she wrote. “But I believe that the film is an opportunity to inform and educate so that these situations cease to occur on college campuses, in dorm rooms, in fraternities, in apartments or anywhere else young people get together to socialize.”
At the film festival, Union described an outpouring of support from survivors, fans and women in Hollywood. “I think we’re all craving acknowledgment that we’re real, that we exist, that we live among you, that we are your mothers, your brothers, your sisters, your lovers,” she told New York Magazine.
She has heard some criticism, though. While about 90 percent of the people she heard from were supportive, “five percent feels I threw Nate under the bus and 5 percent feels I’m a rape apologist. I strongly encourage those two five percents to talk to each other. I think everyone takes something different away from the conversation,” she said. “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.”
Here are her full comments to New York Magazine:
The response has been — tremendous is not a big enough word. Every time I speak about it, whether that be at the airport and somebody slides a paper under the stall and says, “Me too, and thank you for talking about this and showing me a way to healing. Thank you” — that happens daily, that happens all the time, that was way before my op-ed. I’ve been talking about this for over 20 years. When I was 19, laying on the floor after having been raped on the floor of a Payless shoe store at gunpoint, I decided never again. I decided I was going to use my celebrity, my platform, anytime anybody set a microphone in front of my face to talk about the horrors of sexual violence and what it does to your soul and to your psyche and to you sanity and to your family and relationships.
The Hollywood response — I’ve heard from people I didn’t think knew I existed. Walked into the InStyle party last night and [Universal Pictures chairman] Donna Langley got me from the door. I hadn’t even gotten in. People hugging me, high-fiving me. I think we’re all craving acknowledgment that we’re real, that we exist, that we live among you, that we are your mothers, your brothers, your sisters, your lovers. In one of the most important scenes in the film, and Colman [Domingo] and I talk about this all the time, it’s so important for people to see that you are not broken and you are not seen as damaged and you are not seen as less than or forsaken. And there’s a scene where Colman is literally waiting for his wife who has been snatched away from him to be used and abused, and he’s waiting there for her to welcome her back in, and so many of us have not been welcomed back in. And I needed people to see that that is real, that there is hope, there is faith. You are not broken and forsaken. There is always a community that will love you and that is how I’ve been perceived by Hollywood.
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. So if there’s any message I can give to anyone who’s ever sat in my seat, it’s “You are not broken, you are not alone, you have a tremendous amount of support. Whether you speak out or you opt to keep your pain personal, you are real, you are valid, you are loved, and you are worthwhile.” And maybe that’s what we all need to hear a little more often, and maybe not from the people we want to hear it from or we need to hear it from. But 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.