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Nate Parker makes his writing and directorial debut with ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Kam Williams
Nate Parker makes his writing and directorial debut with ‘The Birth of a Nation’
Nate Parker (Photo: Photo: Courtesy Fox Searchlight)

Actor/humanitarian-turned- writer/director Nate Parker first received critical attention for his starring role in “The Great Debaters” opposite Denzel Washington and Forest Whitaker. Parker received an honorary doctorate from Wiley College, the school featured in the fact-based story.

More recently, Parker starred in “Beyond The Lights,” opposite Gugu Mbatha-Raw, Minnie Driver and Danny Glover. He also appeared in the action thriller “Non-Stop,” opposite Liam Neeson and Julianne Moore.

In 2012, he was a member of the ensemble cast of “Red Tails,” which included Terrence Howard and Cuba Gooding, Jr. The film chronicled the story of the Tuskegee Airmen, the first African American military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps who went on to become some of the finest pilots in World War II.

Parker also starred opposite Alicia Keys in “The Secret Life Of Bees,” which featured an all-star cast of Queen Latifah, Jennifer Hudson, Dakota Fanning and Paul Bettany. Additionally, he has been seen in “Pride,” alongside Terrence Howard and in “Dirty,” opposite Cuba Gooding Jr..

On the stage, Parker appeared opposite Dustin Hoffman, Annette Bening, Rosario Dawson and James Cromwell in “American Voices” at the Broad Street Theater. Here, he talks about making his writing and directorial debut with “The Birth of a Nation,” a reverential biopic in which he stars, too, as slave revolt leader Nat Turner (1800-1831).

Congratulations on “The Birth of a Nation’s” winning both the Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award at the Sundance Film Festival.

Nate Parker: Thank you, brother. What a blessing! Right? Never in a million years would I even have dreamt of that. I just made a movie I hoped would touch people, but I can’t even describe what it felt like to receive those accolades.

How long had this project been percolating before you went into production?

NP: Ooh, years. I’m in my eighth year of the project now. At the starting point, I’d done a couple of films, and I thought to myself, it isn’t often, as black men, that we get an opportunity in Hollywood to play a leading role with a strong character. And when one does come up, there are so many people competing for it, plus the narrative isn’t usually controlled by us. So, I asked myself, if I could tell any story, which would it be? And Nat Turner, being my hero from a social justice standpoint, he became the focus of my desires when it came to making a film. I just wanted to create a hero that added to the narrative of America, who didn’t look like the usual patriots.

Why did you call your film “The Birth of a Nation,” the same title as the D.W. Griffith classic released almost exactly a century ago?

NP: That was very intentional. I had my title before I had my script. I deliberately want to tether the present to 1915 in order to create context as to why we are where we are. Griffith, in my opinion, may have been one of the most powerful people around in the sense that he inspired all of America to embrace white supremacy as a form of self-preservation. As a son of the Confederacy, he asked America to turn its back on any thought of solidarity with people of color with the hope that whites would be able to maintain their privilege forever. And that idea of white supremacy wasn’t limited to the Ku Klux Klan and toothless hillbillies, but it made its way all the way to the White House, where President Woodrow Wilson had connections to the Klan through D.W. Griffith. So, I use that film designed to disenfranchise and terrorize us as a starting point with the hope that, by reclaiming and repurposing it, we could right a massive wrong, since we’re still dealing with the fallout of the terror that it inspired.

In an earlier interview, you told me that you felt that you were blessed by God at the beginning of your career. Given how spiritual Nat Turner was and how he had a vision from God which inspired him, I wonder whether you see any similarities between him and yourself?

NP: I believe that Nat Turner, at his core, was striving to be more Christlike, which dictated his thoughts and actions. I wouldn’t say I’m trying to be like Nat, but I’m definitely striving, as he was, to get closer to my faith and to be more Christlike in the context of my own imperfections as a human being. I believe that Nat Turner is a role model that all of us could identify with and aspire to emulate in a positive way, because he used all of his influence to address a systemic crisis. And he did so with his faith and he did so sacrificing on behalf of people he’d never meet, like you and me.

The 1999 rape accusation when you were a college student has resurfaced and ignited a firestorm of controversy recently. What do you have to say about the incident?

NP: I’ll say this. I’m 36 years-old, and my life has been a series of obstacles, a series of educating moments. As I said before, I’m trying to come as close to my faith as possible, and I see this journey as just that, a journey. I set out to make this film because I felt like it was written in my heart. And any obstacle that has come before or will come after I will have to deal with accordingly, with my faith. My hope is that people will see this film for what it is, and I also hope they will be able to see a bit of my heart and of what I’m striving to do with this film

William Styron won a Pulitzer Prize in 1967 for “The Confession of Nat Turner” Did you rely on that best-selling novel while writing your script?

NP: I never looked at it once. I had read enough of it when I was younger to have my stomach turn by an author who completely denigrated the life and motivations of one of our greatest heroes. But I don’t blame him, because it’s a work of fiction.

The last time we spoke was a couple of years ago when you were in Ferguson, Missouri in connection with the Mike Brown case. At that time, you spoke of “revolution” and described yourself as an “actor-vist” dedicated to eradicating the dehumanization and criminalization of black youth. I was concerned that, as an emerging star I had described as possibly the next Denzel, you might be tarnishing your image by being so visibly political.

NP: I originally sought to make this film really to create solutions to the systemic crisis we were dealing with then. But here we are, 8 years later, dealing with the same crisis. I heard someone say, if the next 50 years are like the last 50 years, then people of color might not exist except as assimilated people and as inmates in the prison-industrial complex. I believe that the more we recognize that we’re in crisis, the more we will realize that there is a need for revolution. Because of our historical baggage, most people automatically assume that revolution means black people rising up against whites. But that’s not what I’m saying. If Dr. Martin Luther King was right in saying “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” then anyone who is on the side of the oppressed needs to stand up, regardless of what they look like or where they come from. And they should do so employing their skills and their strengths, taking advantage of their occupations. Nat Turner only had broom handles and axes, and didn’t even have the right to assemble. Today, we have journalism, technology and social media, yet we fall silent when it comes to dealing with injustice. When I speak of “revolution,” I talk about it within the context of humanity. Our country started with a rebellion. What would our identity be without that rebellion? Who would we be as Americans, if we didn’t even know that we fought against British rule? If history is an indicator, we know that subjugation will lead to revolution anyway. We just don’t know what that revolution will look like. Am I an advocate of violence? No. I’m an advocate of freedom and liberation and, whatever that means, I’m willing to stand for it.

I really liked this film better than 12 Years a Slave. Can you put a finger on why that’s the case?

NP: I think it was a desperate love for one’s brothers and sisters. In this film, they’re not trying to escape to the North for a better life that they once enjoyed. Instead, they’re trying to reconcile the life they’re stuck in with what they see as God’s purpose for their lives as reflected in the scriptures. And Nat interpreted the Bible as saying that God was on the side of the oppressed, as He was with Israel. .

How hard was it directing for the first time?

NP: It was very difficult. It wasn’t my original intention to direct and produce the film. But no producers raised their hand saying “Here’s the money!” and no director stepped forward saying, “I want to tell this story.” People saw this movie as a threat. And I was even warned by many people in Hollywood that there would be grave consequences for making it. But you can’t let fear control your actions, when you feel the Lord calling you to do something. So, I decided to just go for it. And despite raising only a third of the money needed, we were somehow able to achieve the impossible.

What’s up next for Nate Parker?

NP: I have a couple projects I’m considering, but I’m being careful to make sure it’s something I’m passionate about.