A year ago, Nate Parker made headlines when “The Birth Of A Nation”, a film that he wrote, produced, directed and starred in was acquired by FOX Searchlight at the Sundance Film Festival for an unprecedented $17.5 million. The film tells the story of the rise and untimely death of Nat Turner, a Southampton County, Virginia slave who in 1831 led one of the most successful slave rebellions which resulted in the death of an estimated fifty to sixty-five white slave owners. While Parker is grateful for films such as “12 Years A Slave” paving the way for “Birth”, he shares that his faith-based, riotous film is less “12 Years” and more “Braveheart”. In the year since the film began receiving critical acclaim, there’s been a seemingly unshakable dark cloud that may hinder it’s box office success prior to it’s nationwide release on October 7th. Parker has had to repeatedly address a nearly 20 year old incident in which he was accused and acquitted of raping a colleague when he was a 19-year-old student at Penn State University. While most people have the opportunity to grow and mature over time, the new levels of infamy and vilification that Parker has received in a few short weeks has caused the now 36-year-old husband and father of six to reflect on the situation (while still maintaining his innocence) in a way that’s less selfish and more empathetic towards women, especially survivors of sexual assault which includes his films co-star, Gabrielle Union.
During a press conference at the Toronto Film Festival, the actor and director strived to rise like a phoenix from the ashes and refocus the narrative of the conversation back onto the powerful and prolific film that should be required viewing in schools nationwide and abroad. Parker as Nat Turner gives a stellar performance on par with Denzel Washington’s embodiment of Malcolm X in the 1992 film directed by Spike Lee. After seeing this work of art, it’s hard to imagine the film not coming to fruition. However, the multi-hyphenate thespian shares that a myriad of financial challenges in addition to many of his colleagues lack of support in assisting with the project tested his faith and his unyielding commitment towards getting the film made. While it’s yet to be determined how the film will do at the box offices or how Parker will withstand his personal storm—one thing is clear, once you have a better understanding of his journey to make “The Birth Of A Nation”, regardless of what happens next, you’ll have an intuitive feeling that Nate Parker will be okay.
When Did the story begin to resonate with you and what example are you looking to be set in this moment?
NP: The story was revealed to me in my adulthood, I went to school in Norfolk, VA, 43 miles east of south Hampton county and I never learned about Nat Turner, no one ever mentioned him as someone that could give me strength. As a young man growing up in the projects, I had self-esteem issues as so many of us do. I had a chip on my shoulder that I didn’t understand but I was cognizant of the fact that there was a very clear value system associated with my skin color and I had a problem with that. Learning about people like Nat Turner allowed me to question my own identity as an American and as a Patriot.
I remember putting my hand over my heart, saying the Pledge of Allegiance ending it with “…one Nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all,” not understanding that those words didn’t apply to me but knowing that I might get in trouble if I didn’t participate; it was conditioning. Through Nat Turner, I also learned about Toussaint L’Ouverture, David Walker’s Appeal and Sojourner Truth. I began to unravel the true history of my ancestors and the triumphs of the people that came before me.
When I became an actor, I was constantly given roles that would support the insecurities of that 13-year-old boy in grade school. I had to ask myself if I was going to operate in this business in the context of my grandmother having pride in my work, I would have to get involved in the narrative. So I began my journey to only portray progressive roles that I thought would change the narrative of people of color in this country.
I also began to write, before I got my first acting job, I brought a book called, “Save The Cat” which was a $5 screenwriting for dummies type of book. I didn’t know at the time that one day that I would write a script but I was more so thinking how one day I might put myself in a position where the oppressor, Hollywood or whomever couldn’t pull the plug on me and what God was calling me to do. That writing manifested itself into several scripts and that led me to what I thought would be the role of a lifetime and that was Nat Turner and “The Birth Of A Nation”.
In the midst of filming, “The Birth Of A Nation”, were you able to separate yourself from the role?
NP: Nat Turner’s only aspiration in life was to be Christ-like, as we’re all called to do. When I got writers block, I would go to the Bible. Nat was so deeply entrenched in his faith. He felt every action was literally motivated by his connection with the Lord. Through that I learned very quickly that I couldn’t just be regular Nate—go hang out with my friends have a drink, then go home and write about Nat Turner; this film changed a lot of things about my lifestyle. Especially in the beginning, the biggest obstacles were when it came to the financing. The way this country was put together, so many of the decisions we make are based on capitalism. When it came time to make this film and ask people for money, no one wanted to hear about the liberation of people of color. What they wanted to hear about was profit margins and returns so it was a lot of how am I going to get people to invest in this faith-based film? I walked away from acting because no one would support me–whether they looked like me or not and I can say that with absolute, explicit vocabulary, no one would help me in my community. It was very difficult but I thought, ‘well there’s no material to support’ but then you try to change the narrative and you realize the obstacles are much bigger than you can imagine and thats when you have to remind yourself, I know who my father is and he’s bigger than a dollar sign.
At the time I had just lost $3 million for the film and my grandmother suggested I fast in order to ‘make room for God’ so I said, ‘Here’s what I’m going to do Lord, I’m going to fast every week until we’re in pre-production’ but I didn’t know when that was going to actually start. But I wanted to do something out of my control that was so daunting and terrifying that it would kind of petition God into doing something because I didn’t have earthly help in the way I thought I would…Then the money came. I was describing to my daughter ‘God Moments’ when you realize that God put you through a situation to remind you to rely on your faith. Oftentimes after you’ve accomplished something, you start feeling yourself then it’s time to be humbled again. I was drawn to Nat in such a way that I could not shake him. Throughout the production process, there wasn’t really in difference between portraying Nat Turner as an actor and Nate Parker the director. I just had to assume all of those roles with his spirit inside of me.
As a man that’s married to a Caucasian woman and the father of mixed children, how do people that feel apart of both sides of the spectrum have progressive dialogues about the film?
NP: Black empowerment doesn’t mean white hate, it never has. If we were to peruse all of our heroes from now back to Fredrick Douglas we’d recognize that interracial relationships were very prevalent, it’s not a new thing. You love who you love but that shouldn’t affect your activism. I met my wife when I was 19-years-old. If at that time I said I’m now discounted from contributing to the liberation of my people, then there would be no Nat Turner film.
I think we get caught up and held back when we say liberation can only be achieved by a certain person that looks a certain way that has a certain set of beliefs. Everyone has a role to play and by excluding anyones contribution, we slow ourselves down. Not to say that European American’s should be leading the charge in our liberation—I’m saying theres a role for everyone to play. In the same way we need to deal with our inferiority complexes that have been drilled in our heads. We spend so much time saying ‘white people need to know xyz’ I don’t think we need to be concerned with how white people see us we need to focus on how we’ve been conditioned to see ourselves. Carter G. Woodson has a quote that I love, “…When you control a man’s thinking, you don’t have to worry about his actions…” Our liberation lies within us. The liberation of most oppressed people lies within the oppressed people.
I constantly ask the Lord why I am what I am, why I make certain decisions and whats to be gained from any and every situation that I’ve dealt with in my life, Whether it be any issue in the past, even having a wife that’s European American, there are no mistakes. The point of not being able to go back in the past in my opinion is God’s way of saying learn from it but don’t relive it. I’m not looking back at the legacy of Nat Turner [and pointing fingers at Caucasian people] like, ‘look what you did!’ This is part of our identity too and if it was taught to us, I may not need to be making this film.
We need to work towards leaving an inheritance for our children’s children. We need to stop thinking about what we’re doing in the now and think politically about what we’re doing for the next two generations.
How do you feel now that your personal controversy seems to have deflected the chances of the film receiving award nominations?
NP: Denzel Washington told me a long time ago, ‘man gives the award, God gives the reward’. In making this film, I didn’t even know if anyone would see it. I made a film about Nat Turner, I didn’t even know if I would get distribution. So the fact that I’m here at this point, I can’t forget the reason why the Lord put it on my heart. So anything that comes as a result, I welcome and respect it but that wasn’t the purpose of making the film.