The Birth of a Nation’s Nate Parker on Directing the Biggest Movie in Sundance History and Its Message

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Photo: Bron Studios

Just a few days ago, if you Googled "The Birth of a Nation," the top results would be for D.W. Griffith's silent 1915 epic about the rise of the Ku Klux Klan through the Civil War and the Reconstruction period. Today, the Griffith film still shows up, but it's fast being eclipsed by the barrage of articles about Nate Parker's Sundance sensation of the same title, a brutal period drama on the radicalization of Nat Turner, who led one of the most important slave rebellions in U.S. history in 1831.

Since its premiere on Monday, where it got prolonged standing ovations both before and after it screened, Parker's The Birth of a Nation has made a bit of its own history by selling to Fox Searchlight in an overnight bidding war for $17.5 million — the largest purchase ever at this festival. Reports are that Parker chose Fox Searchlight over a $20 million bid from Netflix because he wanted a large theatrical release to spur audiences into action. When we caught up with him today, he was looking refreshed and elated, and ready to talk about the experience of having his seven-year passion project realized (he quit acting after 2013's Beyond the Lights to ensure it got made), his plan to create a nation of "change agents," and the importance of taking the title of The Birth of a Nation back from its bloody history.

Nate Parker: [Like Spike Lee before him, acutely aware that I'm wearing a knee brace] ACL? MCL?

MCL.
You weren’t playing basketball or something, were you?

Nah, snowboarding.
Aw! That would’ve been my next guess. Well, MCL, they heal.

I’m guessing you have experience with knee injuries.
I was an athlete, so I have scars all over, everywhere. Just keep on your brace and don’t drink too much, because sometimes you start drinking and you’re like, "I don’t need this brace! I’m fine!" Next thing you know you’re dancing, and the next day your knee’s this big. [Pretends to hold a basketball.]

Thanks. So, how are you? The premiere on Monday must have been insane for you. Can you take me through it?
It was. Making this film was an arduous experience, to say the least, and submitting it to Sundance was a joyous opportunity. To get accepted, and then to be at the premiere, sent me through the roof, emotionally. Here I am with a film that deals with Nat Turner, subject matter that we as a country have hidden, have sanitized, have trivialized — almost in an attempt to ensure our safety, so we wouldn’t have to confront it.

So presenting this film, I was a little bit nervous. Not nervous that it would sell or not sell, but just that I didn’t know if people would accept or be open to my idea that if we are to heal, we need to honestly confront this dark time in our past.

But you got a standing ovation before the movie even started.
Right! Which was confirmation. It let me know that people were open. These were people that had never seen the film, but they knew what it was about. As I've said all along, all I want is for this film to create change agents. I want us to walk in, see the film, and then, if we are so affected, walk out and try to affect our own environment in a way that eliminates injustice. If enough of us do it, then we’re addressing change; we’re addressing inequity on a mass level, a global level.

What were you thinking while the movie was playing?
It was the first time I was able to watch and not think about it critically, with respect to, like, Is the color grading right? Though we locked the picture months back, I just finished the film completely about three weeks ago. At that point I decided, after this seven-year journey to make the film, that I would take the two weeks leading up to the premiere and wouldn’t look at it. I would just separate myself so as to have an honest and organic response with my audience. And it was emotional. The way the theater responded to different elements, it was like an orchestral movement. Everything they did, they did together, whether it was laugh or cry or gasp or sit there in pin-drop silence. All of those things affected me because I felt like they were receiving it. It was actually being allowed into their soul. And then the standing ovation …

Did you cry while watching it?
I did. I was very emotional, for different reasons. I mean, I’ve seen the film probably 5,270 times, and I’m in it! So what made me emotional was the response. When the people were responding and you could hear them being affected. The energy in the room was so electric, it was so palpable. I just didn’t anticipate it. I didn’t know what to expect. This is not a popcorn film that you just watch and then go on to the next moment of your life when you leave. This is a film that is designed for healing. Every line, and the use of scripture, and dealing with the differences in the scripture, and how it’s used on one side for one thing and another side for another thing — all of those things were written in such a way so that we could have clear and honest context as to not only what this time period was about, but in a way that can illuminate the themes that are present in 2016.

And then you left and heard that people wanted to buy it.
Yeah, it was pretty immediate. I’ve never gone through anything like that! I started out as an actor. This is my directorial debut.

A very ambitious directorial debut.
Very! We shot 27 days, less than 10 million bucks. Twenty-seven days. But we did it in a way that kept the crew inspired. They knew what we were there to do, they all read the script, they knew the power this film could have if people bought in. So to leave the theater and be immediately informed that there was traction, it was more confirmation — it told me less about who thought they could make money and more about the desire to get this message out to the world. I got so many comments from people like, “You know what? This is making me think about my environment, if there are things that I need to address or if I’m being passive or I’m being active in the complicity of certain systems.” And others who said, “I’m going to make sure I bring my whole family to this, and then we’re going to talk about this after.” That, to me, is a win. Our wonderful partnership with Fox Searchlight is not just a victory for me and the filmmakers, it’s not just a victory for the financiers, it’s a victory for independent film.

There were reports that Netflix offered $20 million and you turned them down. Did that have anything to do with Beasts of No Nation and how little traction that movie got?
No!

I was really sad about that movie and how no one saw it in the theater.
I can’t comment on that, but I can say that I absolutely revere Ted [Sarandos, Netflix's head of content acquisition]. I think he is subversive and innovative, and I seek to be subversive and innovative in everything I do. He’s done wonderful things with Netflix. This was more about Fox Searchlight and speaking with their team and hearing their strategies for rolling this film out globally, their passion for getting this film out as an education tool, and their commitment to making sure this film is held up to the type of level that their past films, like Birdman and 12 Years a Slave, have been. It was knowing they would spare no resource in making sure the world knows this story exists and that it has transformative power.

It seems like such an amazing coincidence that it’s debuting right now, when the conversation about opportunities for diverse voices in Hollywood is at such a peak.
I do think it’s divine.

Because you were trying to get it ready for Toronto last September, right?
Yeah, I decided I would wait because I didn’t want to rush it for Toronto. We would’ve had to rush it a lot. Denzel Washington, a very close personal friend, told me, “Man gives an award, God gives a reward.” I work for the reward of God and for the change of people, and for the complete decimation of injustice. So I pulled back on Toronto to make sure the product was right.

There’s all this talk about #OscarsSoWhite right now. Do you think the Academy’s changes will help? Are they the right moves?
This is what I think: that we as artists have to understand that there is pervasive racism in Hollywood and in America, and we can either pick the weed, or we can roll up our sleeves and get our hands dirty and get into the root. Our problem, what we’re dealing with right now, is foundational. The business of Hollywood was built on the propaganda of D.W. Griffith and [1915's] The Birth of a Nation. It was the very first feature film that played in the White House and it was an enormous success, yet it said one thing: Embrace white supremacy, and you will survive. That was his message. And America embraced it.

You try to watch that film now and you almost can’t get through it, because it’s such a propaganda-fueled piece. But it was used as a tool to manipulate, in a time where America was very fragile and impressionable, and it worked. The KKK rose to 4 million people. I don’t mean just 4 million people that were burning a cross and wearing a hood. I mean 4 million people that felt, for the betterment of their self-preservation, they needed to oppress an entire people. That oppression came through domestic terrorism. There were people that were castrated and beheaded and set on fire. These things happened IN THIS COUNTRY, outside of slavery. I mean, a man was dragged in the '90s in Texas! That was racially motivated. These things are still happening. You can’t just look at the isolated incident and say, “What are we going to do about that isolated incident?”

Same thing with police brutality. “What about this one case?” Yeah, that case is symptomatic. Police brutality is symptomatic of a bigger problem, of a value system that’s been attributed to people of color as opposed to people of European descent. So when it comes to systems, we need to look at the foundation. If you don’t break up the foundation and lay new foundation, we’re going to be experiencing the same problems.

Was taking the title of the D.W. Griffith film a way of reclaiming it?
It was critical that I use this title. I wanted to put a spotlight on this film — what it did to America, what it did to our film industry, what it did to people of color with respect for domestic terrorism. There’s blood on that title, so I wanted to repurpose it. From now on, The Birth of a Nation is attached to Nat Turner, one of the bravest revolutionaries this country has ever seen.