With racial diversity in the entertainment industry such a passionately debated issue at the moment, the time couldn’t be more ideal for Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation. A powerfully-rendered epic that not only shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 blockbuster, but a backdrop of slavery in 19th century America. Parker, an actor known for his charismatic turns in films such as The Great Debaters and Red Hook Summer, makes his feature directorial debut with the true story of the 1831 slave uprising in Virginia led by a black minister named Nat Turner, which premieres in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic category.
The drama is a longtime labor of love for the actor-director, who also stars in the complicated role of Turner. Parker took two years off from his busy career to write, direct and lovingly shepherd the story to the big screen and hopes Turner’s story will affect movie audiences in a similar way that it opened his eyes as a young man in college.
Parker spoke with Sundance about how he learned about Turner’s story, why he was the only person who could direct it and how the film might create a change in the industry.
When did you first learn about Nat Turner and how did it affect you?
I have to go back to 1991 sitting in a classroom learning history. Standing at the head of the class reciting the Pledge of Allegiance, having a firm sense of patriotism, but having absolutely zero understanding of who I was as a black man in America. I had no sense of culture and no knowledge of self. When it came to slavery I understood that the adored Honest Abe with a top hat and a mole on his cheek said “enough is enough” and we were free. That was my understanding of my experience. I knew nothing of people who stood up. I had no understanding of the word resistance with respect to the plight of people of African descent in America. If you can imagine that being my introduction to my existence as a black man and learning there was a man named Nat Turner who stood against the system of slavery that had swept our country. He wasn’t the only one. Gabriel Prosser and Denmark Vesey [were others]. These were men who said in the same way Patrick Henry did with “give me liberty or give me death.” This was the inception of my love and reverence for Nat Turner.
How did you initially break into the entertainment industry?
Funny enough, I never wanted to be in film and television. I didn’t know I was going to be an actor. I was into computers. I had one goal in mind and that was to make money so I could support my family in Virginia, who lived well below the poverty line. It was following a girlfriend in 2003 to an event in Texas where she was acting and modeling that I met a guy who said I had a very good look. He said he thought Hollywood needed more diversity and if I could come to Hollywood he had an acting school and he could teach me. Seven days later there I was putting my degree aside to pursue the arts.
What was your first impression of the industry?
The interesting thing is it only took the first 10 or so auditions for me to realize that the material that existed for young men in Hollywood was not only subpar but I’d go so far as to say it denigrated the position of the black man. I felt if I wasn’t shooting someone in the face, I was selling drugs or talking slang. I thought to myself there has to be a better strategy for storytelling in this town, so I began to write. The thing I was most excited to write about was Nat Turner so I really dived into the research. Of course, back then when I began I wasn’t very good, but I cut my teeth on different scripts. I always kept this script close to me and then I began to develop it.
Did you see the story of Nat Turner as a way to create more diversity in Hollywood?
I think it’s important to know that diversity isn’t a color pallet. It’s an acceptance and understanding and celebration of culture. We think of diversity usually as how many people of color do we see. I think it’s important to recognize those people of color and their experiences and the importance of celebrating them so the people coming up behind them can have a stronger knowledge of self and identity, which I lacked when I was young. I felt that on so many levels the story of Nat Turner could not only deal with social implications in respect to racism and white supremacy, but also film and entertainment and break down those barriers.
Your film has already received a lot of attention for sharing a title with D.W. Griffith’s incredibly controversial silent film, which is a very different look at slavery. What was the thought behind this?
I titled my film The Birth of a Nation for very specific reasons. D.W. Griffiths’ film relied very heavily on the fear of blacks in politics or any high-ranking positions and the fear of them in communities in close proximity to white women. It was all about glorifying oppression against an entire people. That film was a piece of propaganda, not unlike Goebbels’ propaganda pieces against the Poles in Nazi Germany that took advantage against a people looking for identity. America was very young at this time and they were looking for their sense of self and what he gave them was the Ku Klux Klan. The group assured them they would protect their rights and their families and their children. All they had to was buy into white supremacy. That’s what happened. What people don’t realize is that The Birth of a Nation was the very first feature film.
Despite the film’s overtly racist elements, some people still applaud Griffith for inventing cinematic language that’s still used today.
When you dig into the history of it, he didn’t invent any of the things we attribute to him but he used them all. He didn’t invent the close-up, but he did invent going from the wide shot to the close-up and the usage of going between scenes for dramatic intent. He used these techniques all in one film and he’s still celebrated for it. The interesting thing is if you watch any Goebbels’ film, he did some pretty interesting things too, but no one celebrates him.
Why do you think this is?
I think it’s not dissimilar to the fact that we’re still persecuting and indicting Nazis for their ties to Hitler and the Holocaust, but we have never searched for the people in those postcards surrounding smoldering black bodies that were lynched. In America, the mantra is “get over it,” but in regards to our Jewish brothers and sisters it’s “never forget.” All I ever wanted to do with this film is create inside all of us a desire to heal through honest conversation. I feel that any genocide that’s happened in this world, whether in this generation or before it or in ones to come, there’s honest confrontation before they’re healing. Before you can heal, they require honest confrontation with what happened to them – what happened to them and why it happened. That’s the first step toward healing. It’s something we’ve never done in this country.
So you didn’t set out to right the wrongs of the Griffith film?
I didn’t want to create some biased propaganda film that would instantly make people angry. I wanted this film to create a strong sense of identity of who we were and what we were and why that has implications that are still affecting us today. People still wonder why do we have a race problem in America. Why are the Oscars so white? I think the answer is two-fold. Ironically, it has something to do with D.W. Griffith and this idea of racist culture being celebrated in Hollywood and that being the very foundation of film. The second thing I want people to take from it is to right this disposition toward injustice. Often when we see injustice, we filter it through the lens of our own privilege. Can you imagine what Nat Turner would be able to achieve if he had Twitter or Facebook? The tools that we have right now as people living in this moment in time are just immeasurable. The things we could achieve if we’re honest about who we are and honest about how we get to where we want to go. All I want this film to achieve is really just be a conversation starter. I want people to challenge the system. When you watch this film you see a very specific system of oppression and how everyone was made complicit no matter how hard they tried. Sam [Armie Hammer’s character] wasn’t a bad person. He tried to be a good person, but he was a part of a system that was bigger than him. I do want people to ask themselves if they’re part of any system that is oppressive, even if by their passivity. If so, then what is their strategy for being part of the change that needs to happen in America?
Did you always intend to direct and play Nat yourself?
I always wanted to star in it, but I didn’t know I wanted to direct it. It came to me in the process when I realized I was too close to it to allow someone else to want to give their own creative take. I would have to micro-manage a director and that is not the way I like to direct. I felt it wouldn’t be fair if I handed it over to a director with unrealistic expectations of how I wanted it to be presented. I decided I would tell the story myself and from the moment I made that decision that I would never approach it as a film, but I would approach it as a movement. I want to bring light to a very dark moment in American history. I would do so with every fiber of who I was. All of the work I did researching this man and this history are the things that enabled me the ability to tell this story and from the standpoint of a human being.
How close is the final cut to what you initially envisioned?
It’s desperately close. We didn’t have a lot of money or time. We had 27 days to shoot the film. I had a 118-page script that I cut down to about 97 pages for shooting. I knew from the technical point that it would be impossible to shoot a script that was over 100 pages. There were things that were lost and didn’t make the script that I felt were very important and relevant. We just didn’t have the time. There was a lot of picking and choosing to get it done in a way that was efficient.
With diversity in entertainment such a hot-button issue right now, do you hope to help initiate some change in this regard?
It says in the Bible that a good man leaves an inheritance for his children’s children. When I was raising the money for this, I stopped acting for two years. It was tough financially, psychologically and emotionally. I said if I can just get this movie done and if I never make another movie my children’s children will be proud. When I’m dead and gone, my grandkids and my great grandkids are speaking about me they’ll have something to say that will make them proud and that’s not a celebration of me. It’s more a commitment to wanting to be a change agent in America. My toolset is film. Some people are lawyers, doctors, whatever. I’m no more important than anyone else on this earth but I do want to use what is considered the gift God has given me to be progressive and to leave this world differently than when I came into it.
What does it mean to you personally to have your film premiere at Sundance?
It means everything. When you declare you will disconnect yourself from any and all material that is not Nat Turner or The Birth of a Nation, something very terrifying happens. First, your income goes to zero because you don’t act. Second, your representation challenges you because they know how difficult it is to make a film, especially one that’s a historical drama and that deals with a very heavy subject matter and has an African-American at the helm. There’s this idea that African-Americans don’t have as much value in Hollywood as others. When you have the confidence of an organization that you and so many others revere it can be the thing that encourages you through the fight of getting it done. I say that Michelle Satter (Sundance Institute’s Feature Film Program Founding Director) supported me with a grant and writers and editors. I owe all of that to Michelle. She championed my script and me. At times when I felt low and hit obstacles, she helped me with her encouragement. To have the opportunity to be at the Festival is massive for me. It’s confirmation for me as a filmmaker and as an actor and artist. It means everything to me and I’ll never forget the support they gave me during this process.