Nate Parker was pumped. The writer-director-actor had just finished the Q&A for the final Sundance Film Festival screening of his breakout debut feature The Birth of a Nation, but he wasn’t nearly ready to stop talking about the movie that had taken the festival by storm. Parker wrote, directed and stars in the biopic of Nat Turner, a preacher and slave who, in 1831, led a famed slave rebellion in Virginia. A 36-year-old actor best known for his roles in movies like The Great Debators, George Lucas’ World War II drama Red Tails, and the romance Beyond the Lights, Parker worked for seven years to get his passion project made. After he’d scratched and clawed for every cent of its $10 million budget, the searing and urgent film premiered at Sundance to rave reviews and standing ovations and promptly sold for a record-setting $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight after an all-night bidding war.
“It’s a very special thing and a magical moment that’s happening, not only in my life, but with this film and the audience, and its effect and impact on American society,” Parker told Yahoo Movies on Saturday. “It’s just such an incredible feeling.”
The Birth of a Nation — which takes its title from D.W. Griffith’s infamous 1915 white supremacist movie that helped establish the motion-picture industry — premiered at a bittersweet (yet perfect) time: Thanks to the blinding whiteness of this year’s Oscar nominations, Hollywood’s underlying race issues have finally come to the fore over the last few weeks. And while Parker’s film has a long way to go before next year’s Academy Awards, it’s already bringing home hardware — Nation won the Grand Jury and Audience Award at Sundance on Saturday night.
Related: Sundance Report: Declaring Slave Rebellion Drama ‘The Birth of a Nation’ 2017’s First Oscar Contender
Parker spoke with Yahoo Movies about making the movie, the responses it’s garnered, and the bigger picture for the film industry.
The timing of the film is incredible, especially with the last few weeks of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
I think it’s a testament to film organizations like Sundance, because no filmmaker can ever know — because the process is so long and arduous — when the film is going to come out. You can’t time a film to the timing of the world. But if you answer the call of whatever that thing is inside of you that’s saying there’s something that needs to be made for a very specific [reason], and you’re obedient to that, anything can happen. It can coincide with a moment where America is open to the idea.
It took seven years and your own money to get this film made. And then it sold for $17.5 million, which would seem to blow a hole in the conventional wisdom that says the world doesn’t want to see movies with black leads.
That’s right! That is right. It is a massive blow to white supremacy, and the self-perpetuating idea that people abroad don’t have the capacity to not only empathize, but also be tolerant to other cultures and heritages. I think that at some point, we need to stop passing the buck and pointing at who we think might feel a certain way and start taking ownership of our industry and say whatever exists in our community, we have a say in that very thing. The idea that people don’t want to see African-Americans abroad, well Fox Searchlight stepped to the plate and said, “Not only are we not in agreement with that, but we’re going to put our money where our mouth is and make sure that the globe has access to this film and understand the impact that it can have.”
It may set a standard of sorts. So many minority filmmakers will be able to point to this movie and use it as an example to counter that conventional wisdom.
That’s exactly right. I often mention George Lucas — when we made Red Tails together, we talked often about Star Wars and how it wasn’t a slam dunk, and so many people were in opposition to what he wanted to do. And it made him really soul search and think about what he was doing, and it made him stand firmer in his desire to make his film. And he said, “I learned something: When people tell you it can’t be done, that’s how you know you’re on the right track.”
Did you look to him or any other filmmakers as you were making this for guidance?
As I was preparing the script and developing the content, I spoke with him a couple times, just because we crossed paths — we were together at the Selma release, and he always asks what I’m up to. He’s truly an ally to the filmmaker. We forget that before Star Wars, he was just like us: an independent filmmaker who just wanted to get his vision out to the world. And in wanting to make what many might call a social film, or a film that has a message, and not knowing if people will receive it, I looked to people like him with that ideology: If you build it, and you believe in it, and it’s from your soul, and it’s saying something that’s progressive and has moral fiber, then it can be done — you’re on the right track.
Nate Parker at at the premiere of ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (AP)
NFL Hall of Famer Derrick Brooks and NBA stars Tony Parker and Michael Finley are listed among the movie’s 29 executive producers and producers. How’d they get involved?
I had a lot of time. I stopped acting and stepped away from the business for about two years. And that first year and a half, it was about me hiring a production designer and hiring a location scout and finding locations and traveling around the country, basically pitching my idea of legacy. For the basketball player, he may have a legacy of games he can show and money he’s made. But when it comes time to think about when you’re on your deathbed, and your children’s children are in front of you — what will they say about your legacy? How will they describe you?
And for me, it’s a very important conversation. I want my kids — especially due to the fact that I’m a black man in America [and] there is pervasive racism in America and in the film industry — I want them to know that I took a shot at it. That I pointed at it and I didn’t just point, I pointed and took a step. That is something that our colleagues can learn. For me it wasn’t so much of a risk — it was more of a sacrifice to people who aren’t even here yet.
Pretty solid pitch to NBA All-Stars.
And they bought in! I met with them, had dinner with them, talked to them about what I was going to do. And they bought in. They were open to the idea that something could be created and help us in America be open to looking at our past, be open to the shame it might bring, to the privilege it might challenge, but also the betterment of the future.
There’s a pivotal moment in the film where Nat and a white, slavery-supporting preacher go back and forth with gospel, using Bible quotes to support their positions: one for freedom and one for bondage. That felt like an obvious nod to politics today.
That’s exactly right. That was a nod. And that’s the thing: I’m a person of faith — I’m a Christian. But that doesn’t mean I’m a Christian that is intolerant, that I am one that condemns people to hell. The reality is that if people out there are going to call themselves people of faith, they have to ask themselves: Are they Nat Turner Christians, or are they like the Christians that skinned and beheaded Nat Turner? At some point they have to make a choice. It can’t be, “I can have these ideas, but yet, I can think about love when it is convenient to me. I can use religion to keep people in bondage and captivity, but I can also use it to bless my family.” That is not a faith that I support.
And obviously in 2016, there are so many ways that the Bible is being used as a tool to oppress and destroy and to decimate the well-being and psychological wellness of people. And I think that is one of the injustices that we need to stand up against.
Right now, the industry is dealing with the lack of diversity at the Oscars, but even when movies with black stars get nominated, they’re generally about slavery or civil rights. Is the next step for the mainstreaming of movies with black leads telling stories that aren’t about civil rights or slavery? How long will that take?
I think that until we’re able to look D.W. Griffith in the eye, and his racist propaganda film that set the tone and pace for American cinema and American thought, until we’re willing to challenge that foundation that we stand on, we’re going to have problems for generations to come. We have to be honest about our identity as American filmmakers and our identity as American society, and ask ourselves, “What ground do we stand on, and are we willing to break that foundation and lay a new one for our kids, for the next generation of filmmakers?”
Forget the branch. Let’s deal with the root. If we fix the root, then the fruit of that tree will be well. The root is pervasive racism. Anyone that’s not willing to admit that as a country and as an industry, there is a racist ideology that we struggle with every day, and it’s reflected in the racial tension that we deal with, anyone who’s not willing to admit to that, is delusional. A lot of the injuries that we have now and the problems we have now, lie in our past and our inability to look honestly at our past and celebrate cultures and history in a way that’s not indicting, but says, “Yes it happened, and we’re acknowledging it.”