The talk of this year's Sundance Film Festival is Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation," a film that intentionally appropriates the title of D.W. Griffith’s landmark 1915 silent film about the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan — widely denounced as racist and revisionist.
Parker’s film focuses on the life of Nat Turner, a literate Virginia slave and preacher who led a violent rebellion against white slaveholders, overseers and their families in 1831. About 60 people were killed by Turner and his followers, but the retribution against him and his fellow slaves was even more violent. At the end of the revolt, Turner was caught and hanged.
After a frantic bidding war following the Sundance premiere of “The Birth of a Nation” on Monday night, the movie sold for a festival record $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight, which will release the film later this year.
Parker is an actor best known for movies including “Red Tails” and “The Great Debaters," but he wrote, directed, produced and stars as Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” We caught up with Parker at a Sundance event a day after the Fox Searchlight deal closed.
You have dedicated seven years of your life to making this movie. What does Nat Turner mean to you?
Nat Turner to me means, as a person, someone who sacrificed everything for something that he knew that he would never see. He was someone that put his people in front of himself. He was someone that had a riotous disposition toward injustice. And to me, that means identity. That means access to heroism in my community as a man of color. It means loving my people enough to want them to heal, and to do my part. It means knowing the importance of legacy and what I will leave — the condition I'll leave this country and this world in when I'm gone, for my children, and the children of other people that are around me. It means having a desperate sense of self, and understanding that I have purpose and I have capacity that can be used for good. These are all the things that come to mind when you ask what I think about him and what he did, and what I feel like I'm called to do — not only as a person of color but a human being.
You have actually identified yourself as an activist first and a filmmaker second. And you've used the hashtag #morethanamovie on Twitter. What can "The Birth of a Nation" accomplish as a work of activism as opposed to a work of cinema?
Well, I think one, and the most important thing for me, is healing. I think this film can promote and facilitate healing in a country that has wounds that were afflicted during the legacy of slavery and that still affect us today. There are so many things — we deal with the racial tension, we deal with pervasive racism in American culture, pervasive racism in Hollywood. The reality is this comes from somewhere. Whether it be D.W. Griffith's propaganda film that came at such a fragile time in American history, that screamed the mantra, Oppress and embrace white supremacy, or die. People felt that by buying into this idea of white supremacy, they would ensure their preservation.
As we know now, that was misguided, but the reality is, that was our foundation. So for this film I want us to address that trauma. I think this film is an opportunity for us to look at this dark past, see not only the implications of the time, but the themes and parallels of where we are right now. And ask ourselves what systems that parallel those systems exist? And what is our responsibility with respect to addressing those systems and the injustices that those systems carry? So my hope is that this film creates change agents, that people will see it and — if they are moved — that they will know and be encouraged to step into that place of responsibility. That it will create activists of everyone. Because the reality is, there's racial tension that's affecting us all. And there's no one that will deny that. Which means that we all want to heal, that we all want to confront this issue, collectively.
I didn't make this film for black people to only stand up and say, I have something to do, and I have a responsibility. I want all people to say that. I want people to say, What happened during this time was not only wrong. But it created systems that affect us today. And I have a responsibility to deal with those systems when they exist in my environment.
Nat Turner's rebellion was in 1831. What can modern moviegoers learn as example from his life and work?
I think it's quite simple. One, that true healing requires honest confrontation — confronting injustice where it stands. That's what Nat Turner did. And he did it through a standpoint of love and faith. How do we pull that into 2016? Well, this is what I think: if there's a system that exists and there are injustices throughout that system, we have to know that they will corrupt us completely. We will be further corrupted and corroded, right? The moral fabric of who we are will be corroded to nothing.
That's what happened in this time. That's what happened to [slave owner] Samuel Turner. That's what happened to the people that — even in their benevolence — became complicit, and did things that we look at now as terroristic. So, if someone's watching this film, I would hope and challenge them to ask themselves: In 2016, are there things happening that I know for a fact are wrong, that go against the ideology that I support as a patriot of this country? Whether it be the prison industrial complex that holds people in captivity, that has great injustices that are happening against people. Or whether it be racial inequality, or gender ID inequality, sexual inequality. Where are those injustices and iniquities that raise their head and how can I be effective in stomping those things out?
And be bullish in doing so. I think that Nat Turner did what he did with the tools that he had in his possession. He was a man who could not leave his plantation. He was a man who did not have access to weapons. He couldn't form a labor union that could address the injustice. All he could do is deal with it with the violence, with axes and broom handles, and meet it where he stood in that place. If Nat Turner had Twitter, if Nat Turner had Facebook, or some of the incredible access to technology that we have, then he probably could've had different options with how to deal with the revolution. But he used what he had. But whatever he used, it was resistance.
So the message I think is: Resist! Resist, subvert, disrupt. All things that support injustice. The second we shrug things off, we become apathetic and our ability to be compassionate, to empathize, goes away. Which is why when young men, regardless of the color, but in this instance, when young people of color are getting killed with their hands up, and police brutality is just destroying our youth — the fact that people can shrug their shoulders, and change the subject and don't identify or empathize as if these children were their children. The fact that the value system is based on a hue of skin. That's a system that we need to deal with. So I think it boils down to challenging systems that are oppressive. Nat Turner lived in a time that was deeply oppressive. And he stood up and said, I will do something about it in the name of God. I live in a time in 2016 that has oppression. That is very real. So as an activist first, I have to ask myself: Am I willing to shrug it off and become active in the complicity of this system, or will I use the only tool I know, which is film, to address those issues?
And I'm not saying my job is the most important. There are people that do brain surgery every day and know a lot more than me. But this is my tool, this is my weapon. Nat Turner used an axe. My axe is a camera, and sound equipment, and an incredible crew.
You started working on this movie soon after Barack Obama was elected as the first black president of the United States of America. And yet in the intervening years, [race relations] have gone from bad to worse. Does that make you feel that this time is especially relevant for a film like this? In other words, is history working in your favor, as horrible as that modern history might be?
Well, I think it's important to recognize, there's never been a "good ol' days" for people of color in this country. There's never been a time where there has been racial harmony and peace where we say, Oh, there are no problems, everything's fine. There's never been, even up until this moment. To say that things have gotten worse under President Obama I think is a bit unfair. I think technology has gotten better and the access to recording devices and things, I think that access to technology that has allowed us to be able to see the injustices in a more in-your-face way have grown.
So I think that while there's the Trayvon Martin thing or the Michael Brown thing, while a lot of these injustices are happening — and it seems even more often than not — once it's all said-and- done and the dust settles and the research is done, we'll find that these injustices, these murders, have been happening, probably at a similar rate. It's just that now they're really — because of technology and our ability to communicate with each other in such a real and instantaneous way— bubbling to the surface of our consciousness. We're having a difficult time now being able to shrug off these situations and bypass the conversation, because we're so well-connected globally.
So in that respect, yes, it's very timely. Because it is at the surface. It is on our tongue. It's in the conversation.
A lot of people obviously were interested in buying and distributing this movie. What did Fox Searchlight say that made you feel they were the right home for the release of this film?
I think what separated Fox Searchlight from the others, for me personally, was their desperation to get this film out to the global market — their understanding that this is a film for everyone. That you can watch this film in a village in Australia, at some Aboriginal village, and you can see it on mute and people will understand what is being said. You can take this to Beirut and put it on mute and people will watch it. You can take this to Afghanistan, to South America, to Compton. You can take it to Detroit. You will have the same type of potential impact in the sense that they will watch and understand that this film is about one thing: standing up against injustice.
So [Fox Searchlight was] fervent in their desire to make sure this has the impact that it needs to have globally, so there can be healing, and there can be real, sustainable change. I connected with them on a human level when it came to strategy, when it came to options and ideas about how to think outside the box, think inside the box, pull the box apart, tape it up, put it back together — in an effort to use this film itself as a change agent, as a conversation starter, and as a system-disrupter.