Not long after the second prolonged standing ovation for Nate Parker's seven-year Sundance passion project, The Birth of a Nation, which just sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, Gabrielle Union sat in the far back corner of the packed premiere party, graciously receiving well-wishers. Union was by far the most recognizable face in the room, but had I not gone into the movie knowing I should look for her, I might not have even realized she was in it. Parker's ambitious slavery epic, which he wrote, directed, produced, and stars in, traces the radicalization of Nat Turner, an unusually educated Virginia slave who was taught how to read by his master's wife, and went on to become a preacher (in addition to working the cotton fields) before leading a violent, 48-hour uprising in 1831 that resulted in the deaths of 60 slave-holding family members, and the killing of an estimated 200 African-Americans in retaliation.
Union is so anonymous in the film that her character isn't billed with a name; she's merely part of the plantation's community of slaves, trying to love and live as best they can while conscripted into labor and completely stripped of freedom. Her first appearance, her head wrapped in African cloth, is during her wedding, elated as she kisses and dances in a field with Colman Domingo's Hark (who later becomes one of Turner's soldiers). If she appears in the background of other shots, which I think she must, she blends in so silently and seamlessly as to never call attention to herself. She is a true representation of a slave woman at that time, an often invisible witness and forced participant to a nightmare — the biggest and most personal of which for her comes later in the film, when she catches the eye of a drunken visiting plantation owner.
We don't see what happens when she is forced to return to the house at her master's command (Armie Hammer, in a terrifying portrait of how power destroys all shreds of decency), and we don't need to. If Union said a single word in the movie, I don't remember it, and I almost struggle to comprehend that she was in the movie at all — she's that unrecognizable — but that woman is indelible, and the look on her face as she stumbled out of that house and into her husband's arms is something I'll never forget.
How are you feeling?
I’m in a space where, because I’m very aware of being watched, I want to go to my hotel room and cry. It’s hard to take it in. This is the first time I saw it. For a few of the cast, it’s our first time to see it, and the appropriate response — your gut instinct response or knee-jerk response — it would make you very vulnerable in a crowd.
You couldn’t let go, even in that dark room?
Watching the film I had a lot of rage for my ancestors and for us today because so much has not changed. It’s still the same. But watching Nate come on — don’t tell my husband — I’ve never been more proud of anyone in my life. In my life. When it said "Nate Parker wrote, Nate Parker directed. Nate Parker produced!" I just had so much pride. So much fucking pride, and it’s so important.
Am I mistaken — did you not have any lines?
She had lines in the script, but Nate and I discussed her not having any. As a sexual-assault survivor myself, I didn't want her to have any. It’s just more symbolic of the lack of control or power that black women had, and have, over our own bodies. As a rape survivor, I know how powerful and voiceless I felt myself for a very, very long time, and the shame and the rage. It’s only relatively recently that I found the power to have a voice. But part of that comes with the entitlement of celebrity. Our ancestors were never afforded a voice, so to me it was important that she stay voiceless so you really get that they didn’t have one.
I didn’t recognize you. I was never taken out of that experience by thinking, I’m watching Gabrielle Union. I just felt for that woman.
That was the goal. I would leave set on Being Mary Jane in Atlanta, fly in [to the set in Savannah, Georgia], work, go back. I was very cognizant of moving in between two worlds. And I’m sure the other cast has said it, but you walk on that plantation and you feel the horror. You feel the people. I don’t know, it’s like Amityville Horror. It is haunted with horrors, and families ripped apart and bodies broken and souls shredded. You feel it.
I walked on set, and I’m not a crying person — despite the snot that you saw, I’m not a fan of snot in film. But what happened once I got to work, I don’t know. All I kept thinking was, The chick from Bring It On is about to fuck up this movie. I just prayed, like, Please don’t let me ruin this. Help me. And I'm not lying when I say that, at the end, when I’m being cradled by Colman [Domingo], I have no recollection of the time I came out the door of the house up to when Nate yelled “cut.” At that point all the cast and crew were holding me. We were hugging, and everybody was sobbing. That’s when I kind of came back into myself. I’ve never experienced that. But it’s the land, it’s the history.
Can you just talk about Nate’s ambition? That's somebody's first film? Writer, director, star ...
And raising the money! Not everybody’s good at getting people to give up dough. It’s a gift, and his passion really conveyed.
What does that say about him?
He’s a star, and for every positive connotation that that word means. He’s a star that uplifts, educates, inspires. And he was so freakishly chill on set! He was just prepared. You know, [usually] if people have shot lists, that’s like Santa Claus. Usually it's, “Honey, ain’t gonna happen.” But his was down to the minute. For me, because I was flying back and forth and I had two productions to juggle, he was like, “I got you. We’re going to do this time to this time.” To the minute. So organized.
What does it mean for this movie to be coming out, at this particular time, for what’s happening in the conversation in Hollywood?
At a time when our nation has figured out a way to demonize a 12-year-old boy who was shot within seconds — basically a drive-by — for playing with a toy gun in an open-carry state, this is obviously bigger than Hollywood. Our society found a way to villainize that child. We could not see that child’s humanity. If this movie can help you see the humanity in real people, maybe next year, in 2017, the Oscars won’t be so white.