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The Birth of a Nation
The Birth of a Nation

The Birth of a Nation just smashed records at Sundance. We talked to director Nate Parker.

The movie could be a turning point for diversity in Hollywood

Nate Parker’s epic drama The Birth of a Nation hit the 2016 Sundance Film Festival like a lightning bolt. It was easily the most anticipated premiere at the fest, and a large portion of the audience in the 1,200-seat Eccles Theater gave Parker a standing ovation before the movie had even screened. That’s pretty rare.

The first-time filmmaker — who is best known for his acting roles in films such as The Great Debaters and Non-Stop — earned the euphoric response for the increasingly legendary story of how he got the picture made in the first place. Parker spent seven years attempting to raise the necessary funds to bring the story of Nat Turner and his 1831 Virginia slave rebellion to the big screen. At one point he even told his agents he refused to work as an actor until the film was financed.

Passionately directed with a gleam of Hollywood sheen, The Birth of a Nation is brutal and unflinching in its depiction of how slaves were treated during this period in history. Parker delivers an emotional performance as Turner, and he's assisted by a committed cast that features Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Penelope Ann Miller, Armie Hammer, and Jackie Earle Haley. Most importantly, the film brings to life an important moment in an era that very few Americans are even aware of.

Inside the theater, the response to the picture itself was so ecstatic that a follow-up standing ovation began the minute the credits started to roll. As you would expect, reactions to the film popped up on social media almost immediately, and the news that an African-American filmmaker had overcome all odds to hit one out of the park was met with joyous celebration.

Moreover, the fact that The Birth of a Nation debuted amidst an ongoing Oscars controversy and potential boycott over the lack of minority representation among the nominees unintentionally fanned the flames of a protest that won’t fade anytime soon.

Following the premiere, an intense bidding war to acquire theatrical screening rights ensued. Netflix and independent media mogul Byron Allen offered $20 million each, but Parker and his producing team went with a $17.5 million bid from Fox Searchlight instead. A subsidiary of 20th Century Fox, the studio is a perennial Oscar player and has acquired three Best Picture nominees from Sundance to date: Little Miss Sunshine, Beasts of the Southern Wild, and current nominee Brooklyn. Clearly, the Searchlight brain trust thinks it has a player for 2017 in The Birth of a Nation.

After the whirlwind premiere, Parker sat down to chat about how The Birth of a Nation can be an agent of change, how the picture may or may not relate to recent #OscarsSoWhite protests, and what he might do next. He also shared some very eloquent thoughts on race in America.


Gregory Ellwood

Have you had a chance to breathe yet?

Nate Parker

Yeah, I'm breathing now. It's been interesting; it's been overwhelming in the sense that here's a film that has a very strong social message. Here's a film that has challenging subject matter in the sense that it's dark and it's painful. Here's a film that for so many reasons I was told people would not want to invest in it, would not want to put it on a global platform. So to be here and to experience this, in this time, in this way, is so humbling. It's so exciting, but it also speaks, I think, to our desire as a collective to challenge racism, to challenge systems that are oppressive, to look back at our history and be honest in an effort to heal, which is so cool, right?

Gregory Ellwood

If you go on social media, you’ll find there are thousands of people across the country and across the world that are rooting for it. What's your reaction to this phenomenon?

Nate Parker

It's amazing. I think it’s a victory for the optimist. So often when we talk about racial tension in America and globally, we think a bit through the lens of how bad it is, how big a problem it is, how so much energy goes into fixing it, but it's something that we won't see change in our lifetime. To see this film not only succeed, but to see people who are cheering for the idea of this film, it speaks to hope, it speaks to possibility.

I think so many of our issues are rooted in our trauma. Anyone that endures trauma requires honest confrontation. You have to correct that trauma. If a kid experienced trauma when he's young and he has a psychologist, the psychologist will say, "We have to address it." Honest confrontation. Then we can move forward and heal.

Unfortunately in this country, we've been so desperately miseducated, and our history has been so sanitized in an effort to almost keep it bottled up and in a box. [This is so] we don't have to feel guilt, so we don't have to feel uncomfortable [and] the luxury of privilege doesn't have to be challenged. With this new generation coming up and in this time, I think people are getting fed up with this idea of this pervasive racism that seems to be going nowhere. Even with an African-American president [it] seems to be going nowhere. For me it's about addressing these systems.

Gregory Ellwood

I'm assuming you're going online and checking out the reviews and the response to the movie?

Nate Parker

I don't read reviews. It's so funny.

Gregory Ellwood

Well, there have been numerous headlines that suggest The Birth of a Nation is an antidote to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. Is that too much pressure on one film?

Nate Parker

I don't think about awards at all. All I think about is the impact I want this to have on humanity. I want people to be encouraged to challenge systems that are oppressive in their everyday life. Why not? If every person [who sees the film can be made, whether passively or actively,] into a change agent — someone that in their environment can address injustice where it stands — that's the answer, the root, right? You have to deal with the root.

It's funny because you may ask, "Well, how does that pertain to this film?" Watch the film. It has systems that are in place. You have people that end up with benevolence with their approach, with their well-intentioned desire for harmony, that don't challenge themselves to challenge the one injustice that supersedes all injustice, and that is bondage. The right to life. The right to freedom. The right to be your own person.

So often we learn about slavery through the context of sociopathic people that beat for beating's sake and [because] they just hate color. I don't believe in that. I think everybody does what they do for their reasons. So many systems in that time existed where people would say, "This system exists. I did not create the system." I just exist inside the system, and in my corner of the world everything is fine.

Gregory Ellwood

What about Jackie Earle Haley’s character, the paddy roller Cobb, who rapes Cherry [Turner’s eventual wife, played by Aja Naomi King]. He’s evil, no?

Nate Parker

Cobb thinks he is necessary to the order of the system. Want me to parallel that to 2016? You want me to go there?

Gregory Ellwood

Absolutely.

Nate Parker

The issues we are dealing with with police brutality are symptomatic of the relationship between paddy rollers and slaves. These paddy rollers were some of the first police paroling type of people, who would ride their horses into the plantations and make sure slaves weren't running away. They would be paid to beat these slaves when they were unruly. Imagine the relationship. I'm going to say South Carolina was the first time they actually institutionalized their existence into the different stations. You do the research.

There is a traumatic relationship between law enforcement and people of African descent in this country that goes back to slavery that people just ignore. We talk about police brutality, and unfortunately people look at it through the context of isolated incidents and cops that are rogue. That's not the case. I think there's a conditioning happening that involves a value system, a value system that we were 3/5 of a person during times of slavery.

[And] look at it now. How is it that so many black men are getting killed unarmed and that people are shrugging it off as, Well, maybe they're criminals, or maybe they stole a cigar, I don't know. Why is there no empathy? There has been a very clear and intentional value system — that wasn't devised today — that is set up. That makes me less safe than you are; even now, as we sit in this safe building, you are safer than I am. Right?

Gregory Ellwood

Sadly, yes.

Nate Parker

That said, if I am a cop, if I am a police officer, my job is to restore peace, to make sure there are no incidents of injustice. But I am programmed to believe that there's a value system based on color, that there's administering policing toward those who I feel safe around, there's criminal policing to those who I feel unsafe around. We'll continue to have this problem. It is racist. It is based in the legacy of slavery and pervasive racism in America. We're dealing with symptoms still. Why is it we're still dealing with symptoms and not dealing with the actual sickness when we deal with racism?

Gregory Ellwood

I don't know why there are still so many political structures that are set up that simply won't change anything.

Nate Parker

Why are we dependent?

Gregory Ellwood

It’s not an excuse. I'm just saying that's the root of it, in my opinion.

Nate Parker

Just saying. That's what I think the power in this film is. No politicians endorsed this film and then it took off. These are people that want to see something change in their everyday.

Gregory Ellwood

Let’s talk about the film’s release for a second, then. Fox Searchlight’s normal formula for a movie like this would probably be to hold it to screen at a prestigious film festival and release it during awards season in the fall, for maximum publicity. I'm guessing this is a movie you would like to see come out sooner rather than later. Am I wrong?

Nate Parker

This is a film that I want to have the maximum impact. To develop a strategy around that, it takes a team like the people at Fox Searchlight that not only understands the project but is passionate about the impact they want it to have. I'm not going to speak on exactly what I want to happen, because I don't know what I want to happen. I'm not the expert. I make the film and I will stand in front of it and scream to the mountaintops that it is something that can change the conversation with respect to race relations in America, with respect to the systems that exist that are corrupt and that need to be dealt with. That's my job. My art is my weapon.

Gregory Ellwood

I want to talk more about your art, because one of the things about the film that I was most impressed with was your direction. If Hollywood really is changing, you should hear from different studios asking you to look at different projects. Are you open to directing other movies that you don't star in? Do you only want to continue to work independently to make your own films? Have you thought about what you want to do next in that context?

Nate Parker

I have. I have. For me, I've developed a desperate habit of listening to my gut. What is a movie saying? Is it in line with what I want to say? What is it presenting to the world, projecting on the world? Is it in line with what I want to present to the world, project to the world? What can this movie do? Is it in line with the things that I want to do as an activist, as an artist, as a man, as a husband, as a father?

I leverage everything against my ideals and my integrity and my morality, my moral compass, I should say. There are things that we're circling, things that I think are really good. I'll know it when I see it. Like I say, when I say this is more than a movie, I feel like my approach to presenting it, my approach to elevating it, my approach to making it available is as an activist, is as a person that wants to see change in America and abroad. It's what I want to see.

[Fox Searchlight was] so open to the idea of presenting this to the world in a way that creates the type of impact and change we want to see. Not the type that we can just put a blanket over it and say, "Let's join hands," but in a way that we can look back at our history, look at the trauma that has affected this country, that has still affected this country with respect to American slavery and say, "That was wrong and it happened, and this is how we're going to deal with the effects that have basically spread and continued the cycle up until now." That has to be a tension. Trauma requires honest confrontation, period.

Gregory Ellwood

My last question for you is about taking a step back from the making of the film itself. I know you spent seven years doing everything possible to get this made. Why were you so passionate about this particular story?

Nate Parker

I'm a Nat Turner fanatic, because he subverts. He disrupts injustice where it stands. He had a riotist disposition. Imagine if we all had a riotist disposition toward racial injustice, sexual injustice, [and] gender injustice.

I'm totally against bullying, unless it comes to injustice. I want to be bullish when injustice rears its head in my life — I stand up and approach it like a fighter. There's no place for it in my life.

If everyone felt that way, then we wouldn't have to wait for political influence. We wouldn't have to compromise anything, because we would be the change, literally. Not in the sense of a catchphrase. If you look at our Jewish brothers and sisters, they say, "Never forget." We would never forget that [slavery] happened [in this country]. In America we're dealing with people with slavery [who say], "Just get over it." In the Jewish community, it's, "Never forget." Why is that? I think that's what we need to deal with in this country. Honest confrontation, so we can heal.


A few days after this interview, The Birth of a Nation swept Sundance's top prizes. The film will be released nationwide later this year.

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