“The Birth Of A Nation leaves us with a question we must ask if we are to heal as a nation: when injustice knocks at our own front door, are we going to counter it with everything we have?”
Writer, director and actor Nate Parker takes on a distinctly vast ambition for a first-time filmmaker, presenting a more take-charge slave narrative than we are used to seeing with The Birth Of A Nation, boldly reclaiming the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film.
Amidst sweeping action and romance Parker presents a man driven equally by love, spirituality, fury and hope to free his people from the legacy of bondage in America. In the process, he restores a figure long relegated as a historical footnote and shows him as the heroic trailblazer he was.
Set against the American South thirty years prior to the outbreak of the Civil War and based on a true story, The Birth Of A Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher whose financially strained owner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer) accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses countless atrocities – against himself, his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and fellow slaves – Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.
The Turner slave rebellion stands as one of the most influential acts of resistance against slavery in all American history, yet remarkably, the story has never been recounted in a contemporary screen drama. Contentious to some and inspirational to many, until now, the life and impact of Nat Turner has largely been confined to folktales, novels, documentaries and a few paragraphs here and there in history books.
The Birth Of A Nation puts a fiery and focused new lens to Turner’s story – taking on the incendiary notions of retaliation and how the institution of slavery continues to afflict and inform present times. The film offers a fresh perspective on what led to his insurrection against slave owners in 1831, and offers a comprehensive and human portrait of the man behind the rebellion – a man driven by faith and a confidence that God is on the side of the oppressed.
It is no accident that Parker has boldly reclaimed the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, which, while pioneering modern film techniques, somehow portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a force for good – a graphic reminder of how racial imagery smoldered in the early days of Hollywood. Parker offers his film as the birth of something new, an alternate take on the birth of this nation – the unsung story of those who have pressed the country forward in their yearning to be free and equal.
While a number of revered films have explored the contours of slavery, from 12 Years A Slave to Glory, Amistad and Lincoln, Parker’s motivation is to renew the past and to seek illumination from it, rather than turn the same blind eye that kept people in the dark for so long.
Says Parker: “Nat Turner became a leader against incredible odds. So often when we see slavery in popular culture, it is through stories of suffering and endurance. But Nat Turner’s is a more incendiary narrative; he was a slave but also a true rebel against injustice. His story demands to be told honestly; it is timely and speaks to the aspiration of finding racial peace in this country. For me, calling the film The Birth Of A Nation was about reclaiming those words, about righting a wrong – and turning the title into something that can inspire. It leaves us with a question we must ask if we are to heal as a nation: when injustice knocks at our own front door, are we going to counter it with everything we have?”
For Parker, the film was also an answer to a calling he had felt throughout his life – and worth taking a considerable personal risk to pursue. “I have asked myself how I could be most effective as a filmmaker: I can either keep reading these scripts that project people of color in stereotypical, counterproductive ways or I can put everything I am into a project that I believe will change the conversation and create the opportunity for sustainable change,” Parker explains.
Parker knew he had five daughters relying on him, but he also knew he wanted those daughters to look at him and see someone who did not shrink in the face of what he felt needed to be done. “Everyone said, if this doesn’t work it could affect you being relevant in this town as an actor or from an economic standpoint, being able to support your family. So I had to ask, are you willing to go down that road? But when I thought back to the Denmark Veseys, the Harriet Tubmans, the Nat Turners who were willing to give their lives, I said surely I can step away from acting for a couple of years and just see what happens.”
There was no guarantee Parker would get there but with the inspiration of so many others – who sacrificed so much more than a motion picture career – he found a fire burning within that could not be squelched.
“Now I feel so desperately blessed that I was able to tell this story and do it in such a way that I had the control that I did,” Parker concludes. “If I had to go back and do it again, as arduous as it was, I would do it the exact same way. The takeaway of the film is what I had hoped: wherever injustice lives in the world, it is our duty to face it down.”
Taking Back A Hero: Nat Turner In American Culture
Nat Turner has long been one of the most captivating, mysterious and perhaps misunderstood historical figures in the ongoing making of an equal America. His unflinching resistance to the institution of slavery is often cited as integral to the buildup of the Civil War as an act that alarmed and hardened the hearts of Southern slave owners yet raised imperative questions about the morality and sustainability of the so-called “peculiar institution” that stole away the freedom, dignity and destinies of millions.
To Nate Parker, Nat was not so far removed from an African American version of Braveheart’s William Wallace, who roused and united the Medieval Scots against their oppressors at a time when no one thought it was possible.
Despite growing up in Virginia near where the Turner insurrection occurred, Nate Parker did not once hear the name Nat Turner in school. “I heard it in whispers and from family members,” he recalls. “As if they were conjuring the very spirit of rebellion. But it wasn’t until I was in college, taking African-American Studies that I really learned about him. When I did, I thought ‘how is it possible that I didn’t know about this?’ Yet it happened right in my back yard.”
That denial of this essential history lit a fire in Parker. He needed to know more. And the more he tried to trace Turner’s past, the more he was drawn to a figure who was not at all the savage fanatic portrayed in popular books and legends. Instead, Parker discovered the historical Nat Turner was a spiritually-fueled man of astute intelligence who viewed slavery as a symbol of Satan on earth – and came to believe the only way the world could be set right was to “cut off the head of the serpent.”
“This is someone who tried to make a difference in spite of the impossible odds of his environment. I had always longed for that kind of hero, and he’d been withheld from us,” Parker says. He saw in Turner “a measured, self-determined man of faith, whose courage and belief allowed him to sacrifice himself for his family and the future.”
Parker also began to realize that just as in life Turner had never owned his identity, this repeated itself after his death. No one knows Turner’s true surname or where his desecrated body is buried. In the last 200 years, Turner’s image had been used to signify many things. He’d been vilified as an aberrational extremist, re-imagined as a lusty metaphor for a “slave mindset” and exalted as a political revolutionary. Yet the man’s real life and source of his courage seemed lost in all that.
An Inspirational Journey To The Screen
It took several years of all-consuming historical and creative searching – including time spent as a Feature Film Program Fellow at the Sundance Institute — for Nate Parker to finish his screenplay. He acknowledges the process was lonely, and at times felt like being locked alone in a dark tunnel, but he also says, “that is part of the cost of trying to not only make a movie but disrupt a culture.”
During that time, Parker’s own life underwent major changes. When he started writing, Parker was a former All-American wrestler just getting his acting career started. He drew notice in 2007 in The Great Debaters, personally selected by director Denzel Washington to play a 1930s debate whiz. He went on to star in The Secret Life Of Bees, Red Tails, Arbitrage, Red Hook Summer, Ain’t Them Body’s Saints and Non-Stop, among others.
Even as his acting career took off, Parker never wavered in his resolve to tell Turner‘s story. A devoted team soon set out to beat the odds and get a production off the ground that, on paper, was an improbable sell: an explosive story from a first-time filmmaker, an audaciously fresh take on the slave movie as heroic epic, and to boot, a period action-drama with large-scale battle sequences to be shot on an indie budget. In Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Aaron L. Gilbert and Preston L. Holmes, Parker knew he had found his ideal partners.
Each of the producers thought that bringing Parker’s original voice to the world was a uniquely motivating force. Though they all shared in that, the producing team had very little overlap, notes Berman, Vice President of Mandalay Pictures. “We all brought very different skill sets – and Nate seemed to understand how to use each of our specific skills when they were needed. We were all there to serve his vision and he saw that and integrated it, but didn’t ever take it for granted.”
Given the subject matter, time stresses and budget, the production was rife with challenges. Yet as a first-time director Parker never allowed himself to flinch. He set out from the beginning to leave no stone unturned, meeting with directors he admired, including Steven Soderbergh, Spike Lee and Mel Gibson, whose direction of Braveheart battle sequences were an influence. “It was a kind of compressed apprenticeship,” muses Parker. “I was told you have to be so prepared that you are never second-guessed. You have to know what you want but also know when you get what you want.”
“That this movie got made is a kind of miracle,” observes producer Turen, President of David S. Goyer’s Phantom Four. “There was no previous business model that fit this film. It happened because a group of people came together who deeply, deeply believed in Nate and who felt we were making a film that could be important and great. We were betting fully on Nate’s ability to execute something special and he has.”
Turen says it was Parker’s incredible promise that gave him the driving confidence that he could compel financiers to back a project that looked high-risk at the outset. “Nate has one of the most amazing minds I’ve encountered in the film business and he also has a work ethic that means he is always brilliantly prepared,” says Turen. “He’s worked hard for everything in his life and has a real appreciation for that – and you sense all of that when you meet him, which was our main advantage.”
Berman also had a fervent response to The Birth Of A Nation. “I’ve been involved in my fair share of independent film but this is by far the most ambitious film I’ve been a part of,” he says. “I thought the screenplay was beautiful, exciting and extremely important. Though it was clear it could be major financing challenge, that didn’t bother me. I thrive on challenges and the script and Nate were so incredible, I was completely up for it.”
The key to the financing, Berman came to believe, was Parker. “When I met Nate it was game over because he has a quality you dream of in a filmmaker: an incredible energy that transfers to everyone he meets. This film could only have worked with a strong leader and Nate was that leader. I’m a persistent and aggressive person, but Nate has given me a run for my money in that area.”
Parker says it was natural to talk to investors from the heart. “I knew I wanted to create a film that could be a creative legacy. I knew I wanted to be able to show it to my children and have them see that I made an effort to change things. So I said if those are the things I want to achieve, then why can’t those ideas become the game plan for talking to investors? I put it in those terms: what movies are we leaving for our children and our children’s children?”
Berman also saw the impact in action when they were hiring the crew. “Everyone wanted to be involved because of Nate’s passion. It’s also important that as strong as he was, Nate was equally kind, humble and gracious and I believe you see that on the screen. It’s all about his humanity and ability to get the best out of people.”
For Berman, one key thing sets the film apart: “It’s the empathy we feel for the characters,” he says. “When indie films break out the reason is never just the performances or the relevance of the social issues they tackle – it’s the fact that audiences can really relate to the characters, can root for them and really feel why they do what they do.”
A huge piece of the financing puzzle fell into place when Canadian producer Gilbert’s Bron Studios came aboard with an unrelenting commitment to get the film to the screen. Gilbert says he was blown away by the power of the script and its exciting, relevant perspective on a past that still has a profound impact; but, as with others, it was meeting Nate Parker that utterly sealed the deal.
“I met Nate for what I thought was going to be a little hello and we ended up spending the next four hours together,” Gilbert recalls. “I’ve had a lot of different experiences in the film industry, but I can say this was truly one of the absolute most important, life changing meetings of my life. Nate and I had a wide-ranging and emotional conversation about how he got to the point of needing to tell this story and his vision of how it would be made and by the end, there was no way I could not make this movie. There’s something rare about Nate where he has that ability to move people, to touch and challenge them in a motivating way and you feel that instantly.”
“This story might take place 200 years ago, but it depicts the era of slavery in a vital new light,” says Gilbert. “You see Nat Turner standing up for his people. Some will argue about his methods, but drastic times can call for the most drastic measures. It’s also a story that speaks to our own times and what’s happening in the world right now, with so many oppressed people still living these kinds of stories.”
The feeling that The Birth Of A Nation brings a new, necessary shift in perspective also drew producer Preston Holmes, known for such productions as Malcolm X, Hustle And Flow and New Jack City. “I’ve had an interest in African-American history throughout my career,” says Holmes, “and the story of Nat Turner is too little known. There has been very little seen previously to even indicate there were many rebellions against the institution of slavery by kidnapped Africans. The film is unique because Nat Turner was not content to go along with the program. The opportunity of a film like this doesn’t often come along, so I was thrilled to take part in it.”
Parker’s confidence to take on an emotionally demanding central performance while trying to direct a visionary first film at the very same time enthralled Holmes. “This would have been a difficult task for the most experienced filmmaker,” he points out. “But Nate was always very clear about his overall vision. We all worked hard to make this film happen, but no one worked harder than Nate.”
“It’s not until we have an honest confrontation about how we got where we are now that we will ever be able to heal. Gone are the days that we can hope that things will change without us.”
Everyone involved in the film was buoyed not just by Parker’s fervor but also by the sense they were telling a story that might do what is increasingly difficult in entertainment: to get people talking about things that matter. “This is a film that has the potential to stir controversy but also spark big conversations,” says Aaron Gilbert. “That’s part of what has us all so excited about it.”
Says Preston Holmes: “I think the more that people know about the true history of our country … the more understanding it will foster between us as Americans and as human beings.”
Nate Parker is sanguine about the likely reactions to the film. He knows there are those who it will rankle and many who may learn about Nat Turner’s heart stopping actions for the first time, but he hopes for one particular reaction across the board: empathy.
“I hope that you cannot watch this film and not have empathy,” he concludes. “My goal was to create the mirror of all mirrors on this subject and I challenge the grand wizard of the KKK to not be moved by the film’s humanity. When I see Nat Turner in the final moments of the film, it moves me to tears every time. He is so heroic … and this is what I was missing my entire life. It’s the pride you’ve longed for, the pride you’ve never felt or been allowed to feel.”
“For me, this film is about the hope of untethering the industry from our dark past, about the opportunity to retell the narrative of America in new ways. It is an attempt at a rebirth in a sense – a rebirth where we acknowledge the truth so we can move forward, a rebirth in which, to new audiences, the phrase THE BIRTH OF A NATION will now refer to Nat Turner’s legend – the antithesis of what Griffith intended.”
For Parker, the film will succeed if it not only shines a light on the hidden past but also ignites conversations about intolerance, equality and the devaluing of black lives in our era – an era in which racial narratives thought by some to belong to the past still play out over and over. Parker sums up: “It’s not until we have an honest confrontation about how we got where we are now that we will ever be able to heal. Gone are the days that we can hope that things will change without us.”