Few movies in the history of film festivals have created the stir that “The Birth Of a Nation” did at Sundance this week. The story of the Nat Turner slave rebellion of 1831 brought out rapture in the theater, Brinks trucks in agency meeting rooms and predictions of certainty in Oscar columns.
The film is hitting the zeitgeist at just the right moment; by the time the film finishes its release in theaters, “Birth” will likely have provoked a significant debate about injustice and what’s required to fight it.<
It’s also a very effective piece of filmmaking, with a rousing finish that’s equal parts revolution cinema and “The Passion of the Christ.”
Guiding it all is Nate Parker, an actor who has spent the last seven years trying to get his script written and financed and, over approximately the last two years, producing, directing, starring in and finishing the film.
I sat down with Parker at a Main Street lounge here, a day after the film was sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, to talk about all that’s happened this week.
I know the boilerplate line from a filmmaker whenever a movie attracts interest at Sundance is ‘I never expected this.’ But you had so many suitors, and a record total, for a movie that for a long time you couldn’t get very rich people to fork over some pocket change for. That has to be genuinely surprising.
Parker: I really wanted to manage my expectations coming in to Sundance. I knew when I started research on this film that it wasn’t a film designed for commerce -- it was designed to have an impact. Before the premiere, I did a lot of praying. I spent a lot of time alone. Because to step away from the business [as an actor] for two years, there’s a fear; you can quickly become irrelevant. But I wanted my children, my children’s children, or, if I’m blessed, my children’s children’s children, to point to the film and say, ‘He tried.’ And so in that respect I felt I already won even before it screened.
You talked at the screening about this film being a “change agent.” What do you mean by that?
Parker: I wanted to present a film that would cause people pause. That would make them think about their situation, and are they part of the problem or part of the solution?
Do you mean that in a Hollywood sense, or a societal sense, or both?
Parker: It’s both. Hollywood is built on shaky ground, on pervasive racism This is the reality; this is what we have to come to grips with. Hollywood as an organization was built on racism. It was built on the idea that for self-preservation there has to be an oppressor and those who are oppressed. That was [“Birth of a Nation” director] D.W. Griffith’s idea. That was the KKK’s idea. And unless we’re willing to shake that core, we’re going to be dealing with it for years to come.
The issue of Hollywood racism has come to a head with regard to the Oscars and the Motion Picture Academy over the past few weeks. Do you think those institutions are also built on shaky ground?
Parker: I don’t want to address that specifically. But I will say a lot of these things are symptomatic. And we need to address not the symptoms but the sickness -- the root not the branch, like we say in the film. And the sickness is racism in Hollywood, and in America.
How do you hope this film helps address that?
Parker: Part of what I want to do is just tell the story. If I had a dollar for everybody who didn’t hear of Nat Turner, I could, well, I could distribute the film myself [laughs.] But part of it is showing people what he represented. Nat Turner lived up to American ideals more than many of the people in our history that we celebrate. But we’re not conditioned to think that way.
What would you say to those who argue that Turner’s methods were too radical?
Pakrer: I would say that when they do the research they’d see his fight was never against whites. It was against injustice. It’s easy to say he used violence. But he had to do use the methods he had available. This was someone who had no rights; he couldn’t leave his plantation without permission. All he had at the beginning was broom handles. If the revolution were to happen today, he’d have different technologies. He’d have Twitter and Facebook. We can look to criticize or we can look for opportunities to create change, in ourselves and in others.
You noted after the screening that a lot of people who thought they were doing good during slavery were doing bad -- particularly Samuel Turner, Nat’s owner -- and that this has echoes today. In what ways specifically do you think that happens in the present day?
Parker: I’ll start with empathy. When a young person is killed by the cops and we can shrug it off and go about our day, it’s a reflection of who we are and who we’ve become. If we can shrug off a black person who is killed and not a white person, is that inequity different from the time of slavery, when people would say, “I treat my slave well,” “I don’t beat him for no reason,” “He eats from the same food as me”? At some point, you’re either complicit or you’re not. You can be a liberal [today] and still be racist from the standpoint of white supremacy. Far too often we get caught up in the idea of racism as people in hoods burning crosses. And it’s “I’m not racist. How could I be racist? My best friends are black.” Switch that over to something else. “I’m not sexist. I’m married to a woman.” You’re either part of the solution or you’re not.
Your message, in interviews and on the screen, is a passionate one. Do you have particular hopes for those who will see the film and what they will take away from it?
Parker: I’d hope that everyone -- white audiences, black audiences, everyone -- are excited for this story. Because it’s a story about a man whose fight was against injustice. It’s not just a film for black people. It’s a film about freedom for all of us. Yes, it challenges your privilege and your comfort. But it promotes healing.