How to Get Away With Murder’s Aja Naomi King on Her Breakout Role in Sundance Winner The Birth of a Nation

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Photo: Bron Studios

Early on in Nate Parker's Sundance-winning The Birth of a Nation, the titular character — future slave-rebellion leader Nat Turner — spots a haggard young woman on an auction block and encourages his master (Armie Hammer) to buy her as a gift for his sister. It's a disturbing scene, given how artfully Nat has to make his case so his master believes it's in his best interests, and also because immediately upon her rescue, the woman attacks Nat like a feral animal.

Much tender care later, she emerges as a beautiful house slave, Cherry, whom Nat asks to marry him; they've barely talked, but you believe their connection. Throughout the movie, I kept trying to place the actress, but it wasn't until midway through that I realized it was Aja Naomi King, who plays Michaela Pratt on ABC's How to Get Away With Murder. (Like Gabrielle Union, she completely disappears into her role.) We caught up with King before Sundance wrapped to ask her about the movie's electrifying premiere, her slave ancestors, and why women of color need to stand up to #OscarsSoWhite.

How are you taking this all in?
I'm still in a state of shock. I've never had an experience like that! It was incredible. 

Can you take me through it?
I hadn't seen the film yet, so I could barely think straight. Just walking in and knowing my family was there — it was overwhelming. And then people were standing up clapping before the first frame had played! There's no experience like that. Watching that film in that room, and feeling like everyone was with you, was such a bonding experience. You could feel and understand it every time someone laughed or you heard someone sobbing. At the end, looking up at Nate, who was just such an incredible and inspiring human being — it was all so wonderful.

What did you do when you found out it had sold for the most money of any movie ever at Sundance?
I’m just so happy for Nate. What an example of the reward you can be given when you walk in your truth. He trusted his gut, and he persevered, and he put all of his passion and heart into this. He made his history, and he allowed me to be part of that history with him. For that, I'm forever grateful. I'm so excited that this film will have a life beyond this festival.

How did you get involved?
I saw the title, I was like, "What is this?!" Then I read what it was going to be about and I was like, That is amazing. What a great opportunity to take back that title and to give the story of the true birth of this nation. Before auditions, Nate wanted to talk with me on Skype, to have a conversation about the character and give me some advice about how to approach it, which was really wonderful. You don’t really get the opportunity to workshop your audition with the person casting it. Even through the computer, I was able to recognize immediately that there was something very special about this man that made me extremely eager to work with him.

What was it like seeing yourself onscreen? Because I definitely didn't realize it was you until much later in the movie.
Yeah, that was a trip! I almost didn’t recognize myself either! This part is so unlike anything I've ever had the pleasure of doing. I think it's hard for anyone to watch themselves onscreen, but I was really just able to see the story and how powerfully he executed it

Did you know much about her story beforehand?
No, not at all. I knew about Nat Turner, but I didn't know that he had a wife. It's very interesting, because, historically speaking, there are a lot of contrary beliefs as to whether Cherry actually existed. I think that's because of Nat Turner's nature — that in order to protect her, he said nothing. 

Wow, I didn't know that. Had you steeped yourself in Nat Turner lore before doing this?
We were looking at The Confessions of Nat Turner. But again, there's a lot of academic debate about how truthful that account may be, because at the time of the rebellion, so many people were terrified and trying to figure out how to destroy his legacy of that so that this kind of thing didn't happen again. The fact that Nate grew up in Virginia and didn't even know that this event had occurred miles away from him — that says so much right there. 

What was your read on Nate's ambition? It's amazing that anyone would do a $10 million epic for their first movie.
Nate doesn't tell himself no. He knows what he's doing is right and it's necessary, and I just remember him saying to me, If I do nothing else my children will at least know what I stood for. The value of that is tremendous — hearing him say those words, just knowing him, meeting him, being around him, experiencing how he works as an artist. He believes in you, and because of that you're able to be vulnerable and opened and free. We talked about Cherry and Nat's relationship, and that what unites them is that in their hearts they are both fighters. There's so much untold harm that my character has endured, and when Nat first sees her on the auction block, he doesn't suggest Nathaniel to buy her because he's attracted to her; it's because he doesn't want to be complicit in the furthering of her destruction.

That's a really big part of the story Nate's trying to tell, to not sit idly by and be silent in the face of so much damage and crime and pain. My very presence in this country is evidence of a crime that was committed. That's something that we need to reckon with and look at head on instead of being ashamed or trying to avert the issues. That's why this was so important, because we wanted to see that we have a history of bravery as well.

Your ancestors were slaves?
Yes. 

Was that part of the impetus for wanting to do this movie?
Part of the impetus was that I wish there had been a film like this when I was younger. To see slaves be brave enough to fight. To see a film that isn't told through a white narrative, and where the hero of the film is this man, is this black man, is essential for not only our youth, but for our community, to be able to see a brave warrior who has something to live and die and fight for. 

How does this film fit into the current discussion on diversity in Hollywood?
Diversity is such an interesting word. I feel like when people hear the word diversity, they think that it means only people of color, when in reality diversity is all-inclusive; it means everyone. When someone says diversity, what they're really trying to say is all stories should be normal stories. This film ignites something in your spirit when you see it. That's essential, to have that feeling that you can be, as Nate says, an agent of change in your life — he talks about changing anything that you are witnessing that you have a problem with. You can have an impact. So with everything going on in Hollywood right now, we can have an impact. That's what this film will do. 

What struck me throughout this Oscar season is that women of color weren't even in the conversation of who might or might not get nominated. Which begs the question, were they snubbed, or were the roles not even there?
I haven't watched everything, but I didn't see a lot of black women or Indian women or Asian women or Latina women in strong, powerful parts that really showcased their abilities. Maybe that film exists, but I don't know about it. I don't know if there were parts for us that would've been deemed worthy enough for the Oscars. That's where the change needs to occur. 

And then you look at the Emmys and you've got Kerry Washington, Viola Davis, Regina King, Taraji P. Henson. It was beautiful.
Exactly. Television has embraced so much in terms of storytelling, and in terms of a wide array of characters conveying stories from different points of view. I hope this film will be part of the narrative that will expand and inspire peoples' ideas of how art can be made in this industry.