Birth of a Nation: Nate Parker Speaks Candidly
Mary L. Datcher/Arts & Entertainment Editor
All the “chickens have come to home to roost” as the use of technology has reflected back to the world the ugliness of our American history. What some may view as a resistance to arrest by an unarmed Black person — guns drawn and pointed by law enforcement — many people of color understand the history behind the blatant disregard for Black lives.
To know the past is to understand the present, and to sweep our history under the rug is a travesty.
Actor and director Nate Parker has labored for the past 10 years to bring a part of American history that is not pretty or glamorous to the big screen through Birth of a Nation. Fox Searchlight backed the $17.5 million independent film — the most a movie studio has paid for at Sundance. The silent drama by early filmmaker D.W. Griffith in 1910 ignited a wave of racism and doormat hate that further divided the country between white and Black Americans.
Parker’s Birth of a Nation depicts a realistic insight of Nat Turner — a Missouri slave who is taught to read by his slave owner’s wife. In adulthood Turner becomes a preacher, and later used by his owner to preach to neighboring plantations in order to contain rebellious slaves for his financial gain.
Soon after Turner’s wife, Cherry, played by Aja Naomi King, is gang-raped and beaten badly by white slave hunters — the abuse leads to one of the bloodiest slave rebellions in our African-American history.
Filmmaker Parker had no idea he was closer to this historic piece of history — a native of Missouri himself.
“I grew up 42 miles of East of South Hamden County where this revolt happened. Never once did I hear Nat Turner’s name uttered. So when I became an adult and learned about him and learned ironically, he grew up near my neighborhood. I learned about what he did and why he did it. His discipline, his obedience, his faith — he became my hero instantly,” he said.
A Sundance fellow, studying film and also working as an actor — he was drawn to Turner’s real-life story. His screenplay is in no way the same as the original Griffith film.
“Above so many other things, it inspired white supremacy as a means of self-preservation. But it’s also the greatest cause of our disenfranchisement during the time of Reconstruction,” Parker explains. “We, as Black people, had started to have representation from the local to the national level. His film inspired real murder, it inspired real terrorism against our people. We saw the Klan grow from nothing to 4 million in a year.”
The film stars Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union with Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley — a stellar and diverse ensemble of actors who carry the raw emotion that is revealed in the story.
“What I want to do is show not through dialogue and explanation but allow the audience member to be a fly on the wall and to experience the absolute desolation that comes with this type of bondage and feeling of being left inhuman.”
Parker and the cast have traveled around the country at pre-screenings, press junkets and conducting in-depth discussion revolving around the deep scars of slavery that is still evident several generations later.
“We’re tired of being invisible. Ralph Ellison says, ‘When someone feels invisible, sometimes they’ll lash out to let the world know they’re there.’ I think this is a lashing out, a desperate attempt to say we are here, we’ve been here and our story matters.”
He admits the journey to bringing Birth of a Nation in production and distribution was a long and tedious one when so many outlets are available for young filmmakers. Films such as Django Unchained, 12 Years A Slave and Roots (2016 miniseries) is opening up the dialogue of discussion and reaching a younger demographic while encouraging others to share their history.
“It’s starting to inspire others to tell their stories that are non-African-American. Another thing it’s doing, by bringing these stories up, it’s causing Americans to look at their identity and to ask themselves who we are — not who do we project ourselves to be but who we are. We’re forcing Americans to deal with the traumas that were incurred back during the time of slavery.”
Despite the backlash of Parker’s past — a rape allegation that was brought against him and a Penn State University roommate in 1997 — Parker was cleared of the charges and, later, both men have moved on to have successful film careers.
As the film hits theaters nationwide Oct. 7, he shares his sentiments with the Chicago Defender.
“Anyone out there that says, I have a story to tell or something that needs to be articulated or something that the Lord has put on my soul. Just take the steps and do it. The greatest thing to create a real change is to bring a situation to the forefront or conscience of the world.”