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 1931 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.
“To see this film not only succeed, but to see people who are cheering for the idea of this film, it speaks to hope”
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 With Vox 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.
Have you had a chance to breathe yet?
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?
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?
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.
“I want people to be encouraged to challenge systems that are oppressive in their everyday life”
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.
I’m assuming you’re going online and checking out the reviews and the response to the movie?
I don’t read reviews. It’s so funny.
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?
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.
For The Rest Of The Interview, Click HERE