Nate Parker in “The Birth of a Nation.”
Nate von Zumwalt
After receiving Sundance Institute’s annual Vanguard Award to kick off NEXT FEST, Birth of a Nation writer/director/actor Nate Parker went off script to channel his attention and remarks towards a handful of Ignite Fellows—a group of 18-to-24-year-old filmmakers supported by the Institute with year-round mentorship. Parker’s message should resonate with all artists who’ve fought to have their voices heard, and the filmmaker’s own trajectory—tales of driving around in a rundown Honda Civic with no A/C included—are a revitalizing reminder the journey is almost never without peril. Check out excerpts from his moving speech below.
On George Lucas’s sage advice:
“George Lucas told me something when we worked on Red Tails. I actually was talking to him about [The Birth of a Nation] in 2012. I was like, ‘Yeah I want to do something I’m working on…’ It’s early so you don’t want to mention it really, but you want to ease it in there just so he knows what’s on the radar. I’m like, ‘I got something in my pocket too. It may not be Star Wars, but it’s something.’ And I told him, ‘It’s a hard thing. People are telling me that it can’t be done, maybe it’s impossible.’
“And he said, ‘Oh, well, when people tell you something’s impossible, that’s how you know you’re on the right track.’ If you know George, he said this as casual as you can imagine. [Then] he said, ‘People told me Star Wars would be impossible, and I told myself, well, I’m just going to keep at it.’ And that’s all he said. So out of that I was like, I’m going to keep at it. Thank you George. It was one of those moments he shared with me and I kept it close to me.”
On not taking rejection personally:
“You’re gonna send your script to a lot of people, and you’ve got to get used to people not responding. And you can’t take it personal, because they have their own lives. But you’ve got to keep sending it out. Because all you need is the right person to see that voice magnified off the page that has the power to connect you to someone or give you that thing that will speak to your heart and give you the energy to take one more step.”
On the inexorable role of doubt in an artist’s life:
“You probably see me up here all polished in a three-piece suit, but when it came to making this film I often compare it to being on an island. You’re on a deserted island, and you’re by yourself. All you have in your hand is your script, your dream—whatever that thing is. Your voice. And you’re surrounded by fear. An ocean of fear. An ocean of doubt. An ocean of despair. An ocean of reasons why that voice does not need to exist in the world.
“No matter where you go on the island, you can still see that water, and sometimes you’re thinking to yourself, Man, I wish there was someone that believed with men toiling through the hard times. I promise you your voice will be heard in some way, shape, or form, and you will exist in this space. I’ve lived it. But you cannot quit.”