On the Beat

Actress Katie Garfield had a front-row seat to the birth of a controversy

From left, Gabrielle Union as Esther, Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Katie Garfield as Catherine Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.”
From left, Gabrielle Union as Esther, Penelope Ann Miller as Elizabeth Turner, Nate Parker as Nat Turner and Katie Garfield as Catherine Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.”

If all had gone according to plan, actress Katie Garfield would be picking out an Academy Awards ensemble right about now. Thanks to her part in “The Birth of a Nation,” it seemed like a good bet the young Cary native would be busy on the evening of Feb. 26, when Oscars are handed out.

This past spring, “Birth” looked like a solid early favorite. The film about a pre-Civil War slave rebellion was the subject of early Oscar buzz after winning jury and audience awards at the prestigious Sundance Film Festival and selling for a festival-record $17.5 million.

But it hasn’t worked out that way. Most of the media attention about the movie hasn’t been about its relevance in the time of “Black Lives Matter,” the performances of its stars or supporting actors such as Garfield, who plays the sister of the slave owner in the film. Instead, attention has focused on a 17-year-old rape accusation against “Birth” star/director Nate Parker and co-writer Jean McGianni Celestin.

In 1999, while a student at Penn State, Parker and his then-roommate Celestin were accused of rape. They were both ultimately acquitted, although Celestin was convicted of sexual assault. Celestin’s conviction was later overturned on appeal in 2005.

The story resurfaced a few weeks before the film’s Oct. 7 opening, along with news that Parker’s accuser had reportedly committed suicide in 2012. Suddenly, the dominant media narrative of “Birth” was less about the film than its maker. Parker tried to lay it to rest in an interview where he declared, “I will not relive that period of my life every time I go under the microscope.” But that only made things worse.

The controversy hurt “Birth” at the box office. After a disappointing opening weekend, The New York Times called “Birth” a “flop” and Forbes opined that it was “doomed.” As of this week, the movie’s overall gross stood at around $15 million – far short of breaking even when marketing costs are factored in.

At the end of the day, I still believe in the film in a way I never anticipated was possible.

Katie Garfield

Garfield, alas, has had a front-row seat to the unraveling. “Birth” recounts the 1831 uprising led by preacher/slave Nat Turner, with Parker playing Turner alongside a cast including Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”), Gabrielle Union and Jackie Earle Haley. Garfield, who plays plantation owner Hammer’s sister Catherine Turner, was dismayed at the film’s fate.

“It’s something all of us have had to face head-on,” Garfield said of the controversy. “But at the end of the day, I still believe in the film in a way I never anticipated was possible. To get to be part of a story like this, especially this young, is remarkable.”

Star quality

A lot of kids and actors want to perform but don’t have the work ethic it takes. She does, hardcore. She’s never

Terri Dollar, Kids Unlimited Talent

Garfield just turned 23 years old and has been a rising star for more than half her life. Terri Dollar, who runs Kids Unlimited Talent in Raleigh, took her on as a client at age 10. Even then, Garfield had a finely honed work ethic.

“She was this bubbly little blonde, blue-eyed child,” Dollar said. “But she was already so serious and had a firm handshake. I agreed to represent her, and the first thing she auditioned for, she got. A lot of kids and actors want to perform but don’t have the work ethic it takes. She does, hardcore. She’s never not working, and she’s good.”

Through her 2012 graduation from Cary’s Panther Creek High School, Garfield acted in local theater and commercials leading up to spots on television shows including “One Tree Hill,” “The Vampire Diaries” and “Nashville.” She still hustles up work wherever she can – listen for her as the voice of a doll in an upcoming TV commercial for Toys R Us.

Garfield is a musician, too. She released a pop single last year, recently signed with a Nashville-based publishing company and is working on a mini-album.

“She always had something very star-quality about her,” said Deep South Entertainment president Dave Rose, who became Garfield’s music-business manager after hearing her sing in a contest as a teenager.

“It was obvious she had the drive, and she’s so multi-talented,” Rose said. “She was writing good songs at 16, had the acting thing and was willing to do all the things it takes to make it. I think the world of her.”

No regrets

Before making “Birth,” Garfield knew little about either Nat Turner or the original 1915 silent-film version of “The Birth of a Nation” – a Jim Crow-era glorification of the Ku Klux Klan. The 2016 version of “Birth” is not a remake but a counter-myth, presenting the story of Turner as a man radicalized by slavery’s cruelty and injustice. The revolt Turner led took many lives, including his own.

“We learned a little about Nat Turner in school, but not at the level I know now from research for the film,” Garfield said. “All we were taught is that he led a rebellion, but we never knew anything about what pushed him to do that. And I’m familiar with the storyline of the original ‘Birth of a Nation.’ But I’ve never seen it.”

Garfield’s part in “Birth” is small, with just a few lines. As she points out, however, that is in keeping with women’s status in that era.

“Women of that time had no place but to stand there, kind of as a placeholder, very stoic and still,” Garfield said. “That made it tricky, actually. We have a lot of modern mannerisms, like I talk with my hands. Women back then just would not have done that because it would have seemed not poised or appropriate. The lines I had, the old-time accent took some practice. It was a good exercise.”

“Birth” is difficult to watch, in that it doesn’t shy away from depicting violence on both sides of the conflict. But that didn’t stop the National Review from calling it “a whitewash (of) the horror of the slave rebellion Turner led.”

Meanwhile, the allegations surrounding Parker have been a persistent drumbeat, even within the movie’s cast. Union, a real-life rape victim who plays a slave woman raped by a slave-owner in “Birth,” wrote a Los Angeles Times essay under the headline, “I cannot take Nate Parker rape allegations lightly.”

While doing press for “Birth,” Garfield has found herself fielding uncomfortable questions about Parker. So does she have any regrets about being in the movie?

“No way,” Garfield said. “It’s been a wonderful journey. The premiere at Sundance was the best time of my life, and I got to work with actors who are so wonderful. It’s been nothing but a blessing, and I’m a thousand times better for it.

“I’m proud and excited to be a part of this film, and I believe in everyone involved in it,” she added. “That other narrative has unfolded. But the narrative of the film we made is so important and relevant to what is going on in these times socially, politically, racially. I hope and pray that people can hear the film’s message because it’s an important one. It’s a beautiful and important movie, and I hope people can listen to its message and have conversations about it.”

David Menconi: 919-829-4759, @NCDavidMenconi

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