The Turner Point: Nate Parker reignites a landmark slave rebellion in 'The Birth of a Nation'

Movies Features

“Nina Simone has a wonderful quote: ‘The artist's job is to reflect the times.’ That has always been my goal with my art,” says Nate Parker, the actor-turned-filmmaker, of his passion project and the 2016 Sundance sensation The Birth of a Nation, which he produced, directed, wrote and stars in. Parker has evidently taken to heart the words of Simone, whose version of “Strange Fruit” rips through one of the film’s key scenes and commands its spine-chilling trailer. In bringing the true story of the Virginia-based slave uprising of 1831 to screen, Parker—now on his eighth year with the project—finds an urgent anger that simmers in the right now.

With The Birth of a Nation, which sold to Fox Searchlight for a record-breaking $17.5 million (the very same distributor that took Steve McQueen’s 12 Years a Slave all the way to the Oscars just three years ago), Parker reopens a historical wound that still aches in our society today. With the life story of Nat Turner (played by Parker), a slave and a preacher who grows up studying the Bible with his master’s mother (Penelope Ann Miller), Parker’s film charts a rightfully brutal struggle of black retribution. The Birth of a Nation, winner of both the Audience Award and the Grand Jury Prize in Sundance, lets the poison of racism bleed out freely, with the unambiguous intention of helping heal this deeply rooted abrasion.

The trajectory of Parker’s film is unmistakably tainted now with a disturbing rape case from his college days of 17 years ago, which resurfaced in August and has been broadly written about and made headlines ever since. (Parker was acquitted of all charges, while his friend Jean McGianni Celestin, who holds a “story by” credit on the film, served prison time.) Yet back in Park City last January, Parker’s unequivocal purpose struck a chord with the audience. In fact, something I’m told has never happened at Sundance took place at the film’s premiere. Even before the film started rolling, the crowd—not yet challenged by the quandary of separating the man and his troubling past from his art—rose up and gave Nate Parker a hearty standing ovation. This rapturous response was on the heels of yet another “Oscars So White” controversy, with the all-white acting nominations of the 88th Academy Awards just announced a few weeks before. But more significantly, this display was also partly instigated by the era of “Black Lives Matter” and the growing response towards racially charged conflicts and police brutality across the nation, from Ferguson to Staten Island. Here we were, at the premiere of a movie identically titled as D.W. Griffith’s unabashedly racist 1915 film with an embarrassingly false account of history. On paper, Nate Parker had reclaimed this title and we were about to see just how powerfully he corrected a wrong and redefined what it meant for a nation to be born.

“I actually decided to claim the title before I ever wrote a line of dialogue or exposition,” explains Parker, who joined me on the phone one summer afternoon, before the ongoing controversy about the rape case took hold. “I had to be intentional in painting the picture of how we got here as an industry, as America, as people navigating the social construct of race. Understanding Griffith and the consequences of his propaganda was important to point a compass toward the roots of the pain we're dealing with right now.”

“The interesting thing is, the [events] you see in 1831 also reflect 2016,” Parker observes. “In writing and researching the film, with every slave narrative I read, with every book I perused, I found similarities and parallels. I had to ask myself, ‘Why is there a parallel? Why is it that we are, in 2016, dealing with the same energy, dealing with some of the same circumstances, some of the same symbolic issues that were relevant in the early 19th century, 18th century, 17th century?’ I think a lot of it has to do with the reality that we've been traumatized by the systemic oppression and all of us are affected.”

When reminded of the standing ovations that both preceded and followed his film and asked about the source of that emotional response, Parker is humble. “I don't want to take credit for that as an individual and filmmaker. I just think that we are, as Americans and human beings on this planet, inherently good. At the source of our souls, we want to see progress. I made a film that attempted to start a dialogue and deal with the injury of systemic oppression still reverberating in our current times,” he reflects. “I humbly think it had less to do with the content of the film, and more with the fact that there was just a film taking on these issues head-on.”

Parker credits the Sundance Institute for giving him his big break with the script. Meeting with Michelle Satter and receiving a Sundance fellowship was a turning point for the first-time filmmaker in sharpening his screenplay, finding Nat Turner’s voice, and raising the necessary funds by himself thereafter. “[Their help] made the script that much better,” Parker attests. “It would [no longer] read like a typical period drama. You would also see elements of Braveheart in it,” the filmmaker says, aptly bringing up Mel Gibson’s Oscar winner that The Birth of a Nation was frequently and accurately compared to in Park City alongside its more obvious companion, 12 Years a Slave.

“When you are putting together a film, you study the source material, but you also study filmmakers,” says Parker. “I studied Orson Welles in Citizen Kane. I studied Kurosawa. One of my favorite films is Ran. Tree of LifeThe Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford was an inspiration. I reached out to Mel Gibson. I reached out to Edward Zwick, to Steven Soderbergh. And they all responded.”

But he also doesn’t deny the impact McQueen’s Oscar winner had on him. “I think that I will forever be indebted to Steve McQueen, because he made the subject matter digestible. It enabled people to be more open to the idea of my film. There could be no The Birth of a Nation without the prologue of 12 Years a Slave. This is just another chapter in that narrative,” he says, adding that his story of resistance differs from McQueen’s story of endurance.

Having worked as a prolific actor for a decade, Parker also gratefully recalls the contributions of filmmakers he has collaborated with. He calls Spike Lee, who directed him in Red Hook Summer, one of his personal heroes, who gave him notes both on his script and his first cut. Similarly, Gina Prince-Bythewood. who directed Parker in Beyond the Lights and The Secret Life of Bees (and whom Parker calls one of the best directors in the business), chimed in by reading his script early on. “Denzel Washington, when I worked with him on The Great Debaters, allowed me to shadow him when he was directing. I really learned from Denzel how to talk to actors as an actor/director,” says Parker with gratitude.

Parker grew up in Virginia, not too far from where Nat Turner lived and led the rebellion of 1831. While he lived just 42 miles east of Turner, he never actually learned about him until he went to college. Identifying the underlying reason of his lack of knowledge back then comes easy to Parker. He knows in his gut there hasn’t been sufficient reconciliation with slavery in this country, even though in his view most of our current issues can be interpreted as a direct result of that legacy. For that, he holds the system of education and its evolution accountable. “The reality is we were not allowed to read,” Parker asserts. “If you take four generations of a people and take away education and take away culture, then 400 years later they are at the bottom of the educational spectrum. You have to ask yourself whether there is a connection.”

He sees that vicious circle of history expanding to other institutions within modern society and their systemic impact on the lives of people of color. “You look at the relationship between law enforcement and people of color in this country, and then you look back and realize that the first police in this country were slave patrollers on plantations, responsible for sending dogs on people, controlling their bodies and whipping them for their owners. When you look at the fact that we came to this country 400 years ago in chains, [and] now 400 years later, through mass incarceration, we as people of African descent are the most represented people in prison. And yet we only make up thirty percent of this country.”

As determined as he was to portray the legacy of slavery accurately through an impassioned lens, a simple and clear-cut perspective of good-vs.-evil was never appealing to Parker. In The Birth of a Nation, we are shown sympathetic figures among the white populace, such as Miller’s Elizabeth Turner, the mother of Nat’s master (Armie Hammer). Parker feels strongly that rigid partitions oversimplify present-day conflicts and the complexities of the human condition. His interest lies in looking at the evils of entire systems rather than demonizing individuals.

“Frederick Douglass was quoted saying, ‘When I became free, I began to see the effects slavery had not only on the slave but on the slave master.’ I wanted to be clear that every single person that has ever done an evil deed has done so out of the cache of his own reasons,” Parker explains. “It was something that existed within the context of a corrupt system. If it was done under the pretense of bondage, then nothing good can come from it.”

Less than halfway into The Birth of a Nation, another dimension of the film that feels urgent and current reveals itself. Turner’s life story illustrates how religion can be misinterpreted conveniently to fit a destructive agenda of social oppression, examples of which we routinely witness in today’s world. In one scene that ultimately leads to the bloody rebellion that lasts for two days, Turner reaches the limit of his endurance and powerfully exclaims, “For every verse they use to support our bondage, there’s another one demanding our freedom.” And this dual perspective on religion, as an inspiration for freedom and false rationalization for slavery, never leaves the story.

Parker says while he doesn’t consider himself religious, he does subscribe to Christian doctrine and believes in a personal relationship with Christ. “For someone to be Christian, they must be attempting to be Christlike,” he adds. “That is what separates a Nat Turner Christian from the Christians that hung and skinned him, in the same way that an ice pick can be used to break ice or to assault someone. Gandhi says, ‘I [like] your Christ. But I don’t [like] your Christians.’ I really want to put a spotlight on faith as it echoes into contemporary times,” he continues. “You can turn on the television for 30 seconds and see how faith is being used to manipulate. You can turn on the political debates. You can look at the terror alerts. You can look at xenophobia, the way Muslims are being treated in this country, and see very quickly the way religion is being used for social control.”

The Birth of a Nation, while telling the story of a male-led uprising, possesses a female angle that becomes evident in numerous key turns in the film. Characters played by Aja Naomi King (as Turner’s wife Cherry) and Gabrielle Union have a major impact on the story’s course. To Parker, including and honoring the female struggle in his film was crucial. “When we see stories of struggle, triumph, endurance and resistance, the woman is usually used as a trope. It was important for me to recognize the strength and courage of women,” he asserts. “The three biggest turning points for Nat's actual ideology around resistance came through the context of communicating with women. When he talked to his wife and said, ‘Should I act in revenge?’ and she said, ‘No, you need to wait on God—you taught me that,’ he doesn't rebel. He comes to her later and says, ‘I feel like the Lord's calling me to fight. What should I do?’ She says, ‘The Lord's called you to fight, you fight.’ Another moment is when his grandmother is sewing up his back, and she says, ‘I watched your grandfather die fighting. I'm so glad he fought and died rather than to come here and see the things that I have seen.’ Even with Penelope's character, she had ideas about what Nat could do but she had no rights either. I would be remiss to create a film or a piece of art about that period of time and not be clear about the fact that she couldn't stop him from being whipped. This was not about some bravado machismo reality. There were so many elements that came into play when planning and executing this revolution.”

Nate Parker hopes for a diverse future in American filmmaking, where talent is discovered early on and built from the ground up. And he already does his part in contributing to the kind of future he wants to see, launching a pair of initiatives geared towards filmmakers of color. First, he founded a film school at Wiley College in Texas. Then, he announced a Sundance Fellowship specifically for filmmakers of color. He talks about these initiatives with a specific passion. “We have to understand that diversity is not a color wheel. We have to celebrate the differences. To do that sometimes requires going out and finding those voices that need to be magnified, finding those people that, if cultivated, can be thought leaders and culture shifters in our industry, country and in our world. I'm creating an alternate pipeline that can combat the present pipeline. I'm trying to do my part in creating not just a token of diversity but also a path so that people of color, women will have opportunities even before they have the skills. With my Nate Parker Foundation, I partner with the Ford Foundation. Our first initiative was to start a film school at a historically black college that introduced the arts, and through the arts cultivated young people in their art so we could find the next Ryan Coogler, Issa Rae or Gina Prince-Bythewood.”