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Nate Parker on controversy and ‘healing power’ of The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in The Birth of A Nation, which is in theaters now ]
Nate Parker as Nat Turner leading the slave rebellion in The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker wrote, directed and stars as the lead character in the slave uprising historical drama The Birth of a Nation.

It recounts the little known events of 1831 in Virginia when Nat Turner, a slave and preacher, led a two-day rebellion against white masters and their enforcers which ended in a massacre.

Parker based the screenplay in part on The Confessions of Nat Turner, the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by William Styron, slave narratives and historical documents.

But he named it The Birth of a Nation to “reclaim the title” from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 racist silent film.

Parker brought the film to the Toronto International Film Festival and spoke about the story, the making of and his own history of sexual assault and how it risks overshadowing the film.

Why did you want to film Nat Turner’s story?

Nate Parker: He was a hero that I had never heard of growing up in North Virginia 43 miles east of Southampton County (where the uprising took place).

I learned in school about so many of our forefathers, John Adams, George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Eli Whitney and The Cotton Gin. The idea of a black person that resisted was an oxymoron.

Learning about him I actually felt a stronger sense of patriotism. I decided that this was the story I wanted to tell and if I wanted to portray anyone, it would be Nat Turner.

I think the legacy of Nat Turner has healing qualities and I think it could progress us all forward and inspire conversations.

We talk about progressing but we haven’t really called a meeting and had a conversation, an honest conversation about raising this country.

So I do think the legacy of Nat Turner is important to all of us, and he’s an American hero for what he sacrificed.

The Birth of a Nation is shaded in controversy given your acquittal on sexual assault charges 17 years ago. Do you think people are judging the film before seeing it?

NP: I won’t try to speak for anyone but first off, I addressed it and I’m sure in future forms I’ll address it more.

But the reality is there’s no one person that makes a film. We had 400 people involved with this project going for fifteen weeks and away from their families. They worked on the film and spent time in post.

I would just encourage everyone to remember that, personal life aside, I’m just one person and the way we ran our set, there was never a hierarchy.

I never wanted to feel like any one person was above or more important than anyone.

We did our very best to create the type of atmosphere that everyone felt that they were included and everyone felt that their ideas were important. And in fact, there were many ideas that made it to the screen that weren’t my own.

If a grip or gaffer had the best idea it was what we went with.

Few people would doubt the importance of the film but a lot feel you should have apologized for what happened 17 years ago to the victim and her family and why it happened to you and would you now?

I’ll say this. You know, I’ve addressed this a few times and, as I said, I’m sure I’ll address it in different forms. But this is a forum for the film. It’s not mine. I don’t own it. It does not belong to me.

I definitely don’t want to hijack this with my personal life. I do want to make sure that we are doing this film so, respectfully, I would just like to – I want to say thank you again to the Toronto International Film Festival for allowing us to be here and I want to continue to celebrate the people that have helped make this film possible — 400 plus people.

Nate, you’ve talked a lot about injustice today. Do you feel that there’s injustice in Hollywood or a double standard regarding who is held accountable for their past transgressions?

NP: Thank you for that question. Again, I don’t pretend to be an expert on the reactions of anyone. I’m a filmmaker. I feel like this is my calling and I feel very blessed that I’ve had the opportunity to make films and act in films.

And so, I’m going to stay in that lane. I’m a filmmaker, you guys are journalists and we all have jobs to do.

When we’re talking about injustice, like I said, we all have jobs to do and I think that the goal is going back to our occupations or our circles and saying ‘how can I be someone that can progress us forward as a nation and progress and move forward as a planet and put forth an effort that can raise all ships’.

What were the difficulties in making The Birth of a Nation?

NP: We had no money to make this film so I could not pay the people very well. Everyone worked for scale, all the way across the board, Armie Hammer included.

I’m not going to tell you what his quote was but good God! And there were many, many, many people that just kept going above and beyond.

There were people that were running on set, carrying sandbags, that were not a part of the crew. They were actors.

There was a day where it rained. I mean, you understand, we had 27 days. So the barn guy said, if it rains, you lose a day, you lose a movie.

In other words, when it would rain, we’d have some type of force that we could not control, and everyone kicked in.

There was a day that the slave cabins flooded. And before anyone could even respond, everyone, extras, everyone, was grabbing hoses and shovels and digging a canal away from the slave quarters. That’s the kind of collaboration this took.

So, I’ll say that and I’m sure I’ll have other opportunities to address it. But I do think that it’s important to recognize that no one person does anything important on their own, whether it be by the help and support of cast and crew members of other colleagues or it be by the support of your faith in God.

No person works alone and creates something that is as special as I believe this project is.

How concerned were you about the authenticity of the film?

NP: Detail was critical for us. Armie Hammer is tall and handsome and his teeth are very white and clean. So, when we decided to work together, the first thing I said was ‘stop shaving, don’t get a haircut, leave everything in sight’.

And then I got bad teeth made for him. So, he had disgusting, crusted teeth and I think it worked a bit. He was still Armie Hammer but he looked a little different.

Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner and Parker as Nat Turner
A bearded Armie Hammer as Samuel Turner and Parker as Nat Turner

For me, historical accuracy was very, very important. We’ve seen stories that deal with the African-American experience that aren’t necessarily true.

They aren’t true stories and we see how those narratives run in my circles. We talked about how in many ways that is unproductive because it gives a false sense of identity and America is dealing with an identity crisis.

So, how are we to reclaim our own identities? Who are we? Who are we really as a country?

Was it a conscious decision to have Nat’s walk to the hanging scene look similar or reminiscent to Jesus on the cross?

NP: So much of what I wrote and how I wrote it in my opinion was inspired by faith.

Nat Turner spent most of his time in prayer and he did not drink, he was not known to have money.

I am a Christian and one of the things that we’re charged with is aspiring to be Christ-like.

And so, in acknowledging the scene, my goal wasn’t to make it look like Christ walking to the cross.

However, in the writing, in the journey of this man that considered himself a Christian, was a Christian, I wanted to capture what it must have been like for a person in bondage to be so desperate in his faith to walk as a person of Christ, as a representative of Christ, because I felt like that was the very thing that felt put in him the responsibility to resist.

If I’m to be a preacher, if I’m going to be a shepherd of the Lord, if I’m to walk like Christ as instructed in this book, then I am to resist.

Parker's Nat Turner preaching to fellow slaves in front of a cross
Parker’s Nat Turner preaching to fellow slaves in front of a cross

So, there was intention to make this like Christ, but yes, in every action that I could, that I felt was human, I wanted to be clear in distinguishing a Christian that seeks to be Christ-like from a Christian that would hang him and crush his flesh to grease.

I wasn’t interested in making a film for just the choir, you know, for people that are older that understand we need change and that social justice is important.

I wanted to give young people a way in to this narrative as well. So many – whether it be Black Lives Matter or so many different movements, the driving force is young people.

Given the reception you’ve had for your film, are you going to return to your plan to have a fall tour at campuses? And what do you think of the proposal that you could talk about the film and race issues and of sexual assault on campus?

NP: I can’t speak for Fox. From what I understand, we’re still moving forward as planned with everything.

When I made this film and I often say it, healing comes with an honest confrontation with our past and injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.

And so, we want to deal with injustice everywhere, wherever it stands. And I will not deter from that path of dealing with injustice and eradicating it wherever it stands.

One of the things that Frederick Douglass said is: “When I became free, I began to see the effects slavery had not only on slaves, but on slave masters.”

The reality is we’ve all been traumatized. If you walk out thinking, well, okay, well, there are some black issues that this film is trying to deal with, I think you’re wrong.

I think that we all have been held back and scarred and we’re oozing pus from wounds that we have not addressed during this period in the 19th century, and previously before that, and those injuries that are still haunting us today.

the-birth-of-a-nation-poster

The Birth of a Nation is in theaters now.


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