Sundance Interview: 'The Birth of a Nation' Director/Star Nate Parker
by Alex Billington
February 3, 2016
"Why don't we have more of a riotous disposition toward injustice?" I had a good feeling about this before the festival even started. At the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, The Birth of a Nation won both the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize, and was picked up by Fox Searchlight in a record-breaking sale. This powerful film is the directorial debut of actor Nate Parker, who not only stars in and directs the film, but he also wrote the screenplay and produced it as well. I had the honor of meeting Nate after his premiere and talking with him for 10 minutes about making the film and returning to Sundance as a filmmaker, not just an actor. It's one of the best interviews I've had at Sundance - he's so intelligent and delightful to talk with.
The Birth of a Nation premiered at Sundance to a massive standing ovation - the crowd jumped from their seats as soon as the credits started rolling and stayed standing until Nate Parker came out on stage. I wrote in my review from Sundance: "It's a sensational, riveting film that spends less time on the revolt itself, more on the man that realizes he is the one who must passionately lead an uprising… Above all, this film exceeds perfectly in accomplishing what it sets out to do - to inspire other people to be 'change agents', to inspire action not indifference." It's hard to resist that feeling. My interview and my photo with Nate found below:
This isn't your first time to Sundance, but it must be different coming back this year?
Nate Parker: As an actor, you arrive, you go where they tell you to go. You have your premiere. You meet a couple of people you haven't seen in a while. And then you go home. With this, I've been so close to it for so long – I've been able to talk about it all day and to see the effect it's having on people. Here we are a couple of days removed from the heart of the Sundance experience, with respect to the [opening] weekend. People are leaving… Even now with less people on the streets, people are still talking about it, like, "Man, I loved your film. It made me feel like this. I'm going to try and be more of a change agent." There's nothing better than the experience I feel like I'm having right now. It's a seminal moment in my life.
I absolutely loved the film [read my review]. That's why I'm here to talk to you…
Nate: Thank you so much.
You mentioned during the Q&A that this has been something you were working on for seven years. Did 12 Years a Slave have any impact on it in any way? Did it help or hurt?
Nate: It didn't influence it. But it did have an impact on my urgency to tell the story. I think 12 Years was a great first step in the conversation. The reality is we had never seen slavery represented in a way that was honest and unapologetic. That's what 12 Years did for us. I think it set the stage for a film like this. Whereas, 12 Years was about the endurance and suffering of slavery, this film was about the self-determination and resistance of a man and enslaved people and the effect that can have on a corrupt system.
So, I feel, in many ways, 12 Years a Slave set the stage for a film like this to exist and for people to be able to digest it, having had an introduction to the subject matter in an honest way.
Do you mind these comparisons? Braveheart is another one I've heard people comparing it to…
Nate: I love that comparison because I do think that is what it is. The key in all of these comparisons that I attach to is the humanity. We're dealing with people, real people with real issues, and real concerns, and real feelings, and real motivations. So to see Braveheart and to see what Mel [Gibson] did with that, and to see the humanity he brought to it inspired me. He was someone I was able to sit and speak with about my film and get some thoughts, and ideas, and tips on how to shoot it…
You talked with him about it?
Nate: Oh, yes. I sat with him and… It's a funny thing. We spoke on the phone the day before my battle sequence, since he was in Australia. And he was reminding me of the low angle shots, of how to get around the fact that I didn't have a lot of time. So I had a great mentor. I do think this is something where I was influenced by Spartacus. I was influenced by Glory. I was influenced by Braveheart. These are films that I feel like are about human people in the human condition wanting to have their most basic privilege, or right, as given by God, and that is – freedom.
One thing that impressed me about this film is you worked on so many different aspects - writing, directing, producing. When you are performing as Nat Turner, are you thinking purely about the performance or are you also thinking about everything else, like directing?
Nate: Only about Nat. I always say – I directed the film in prep. I obsessed over prep. I literally wanted to be so specific in the way I designed this project in my prep period that it could run on its own. It's like building a machine that… It's like when you see Rube Goldberg contraptions, that it can go on forever by itself. So I could take myself out of it as Nate the director and be present as Nat, step out of Nat during cut, and then be able to process based on what was already set into place if it needs any kind of fine tuning. And that machine, so to speak, was an alive scene. That was my crew. They were so on board. They so bought in. They were so completely driven to tell the story the right way.
We shot this in 27 days. The schedule called for about 10 more days than that. But, like I said, when you focus on encouraging people to work at their capacity, then you get the most out of them. And I'm just so blessed to have had the crew that I did.
What was the one thing that you felt was most important to get right about the film?
Nate: The thing I wanted to get right was Nat Turner's humanity. That this was a man. In history he's painted as a religious fanatic that just wanted to kill people. I think that's the narrative that was important for white supremacy and the safety and conservation of racism in that time. So they created this narrative that was propagated and perpetuated all throughout time. Then the buck stops with us to do our research and know history. I think we all need a hero that fought against this system. If not, we're all just kind of sat in this muck of it feeling like, "Well, it was just a mess until it wasn't anymore." No, no, no. People fought. People fought. And there's no reason why a white person can't be excited that someone that just so happened to be an enslaved person fought against the system that we all, as white and black people, know was corrupt.
So this film is for all Americans to say, "Whew. Well, thank God someone fought and stood up. Thank God there was a Nat Turner. Thank God there was a Denmark Vesey. Thank God there was a Gabriel Prosser. Thank God there was a Sojourner Truth, there was a Harriet Tubman. There were people that stood against this system. Thank God they did it for us now, because we all can celebrate.
I want to ask about the balance between inspiring violent change versus inspiring the desire to change. You could almost take this film at its literal value and be like, "Hey, we need to cause change by being violent"…
Nate: That would be the power of a person's ignorance. I think that if a person thinks practically about it, they would recognize that Nat Turner used what he had to fight the system that existed. Nat Turner wasn't allowed to go off of his plantation if he wanted to. Nat Turner wasn't allowed to use the restroom where he wanted to, or wash his hands where he wanted to, or eat where he wanted to. He wasn't allowed to assemble unless there were white people present.
I'm saying that to say – [Nat] didn't have Twitter. He didn't have social media. Because if Nat Turner had Facebook, things may have turned out a little differently. You know what I mean? He had the tools that he had. We are in a privileged situation as human beings in 2016. With the direction technology is taking in this world, why don't we have more of a riotous disposition toward injustice? If we can brag about our space voyages and landing rovers on Mars, why can't we brag about the way that we are willing to attack injustices around racism, and sexual inequality, and gender inequality? Why aren't those things that we're bragging about? Because they are well within our capacity.
So Nat Turner worked with the tools he had. I'm challenging us all to work with the tools we have, so when we see injustice rear its ugly head anywhere in our environment, we can point at it, point it out, we can gather people around, and we can crush it.
You mentioned how hard it was to get this project funded. What was the thing you said or did that convinced the investors you did get?
Nate: I thought outside the box. I said, "What do I want to do with this film?" I made a list. The one thing that wasn't on the list was make money. I said, "I want people to see it." That was on that list. "I want people to be affected." That was on the list. "I want to create a legacy for my children to be able to look at something and point and something and say, 'That was an effort to change things on my behalf.'" So if those are the things I want to achieve, then why can't that be the game plan or strategy when I approach investors? It became a legacy play. It was: What are we leaving for our children and our children's children?
I went to a very close friend, Mike Novogratz, hedge fund manager. I said, "Look. You study the science of money. You do it more than anyone else. You've made billions of dollars. One day, on your deathbed you are going to look at your children and think to yourself: What did I leave for them, really? Money's not going to be here. What did you leave to them that they can tangibly say: 'My dad,' or my grandfather, my great grandfather, 'left this for me for this reason'?"
And I want this film to be that thing. And Mike Novogratz is a European American. He's a white guy. He's not an African American guy. I received funds from people from all walks of life, all backgrounds. But that's just one example of an approach. And the people responded. And they did so without the pressure of saying, "This has to make money." It was saying, "This has to make the impact. So if we don't make money, at least we can say we tried to make an impact."
In the growing movement right now to get more Black, Latino, minority filmmakers out there making films, what do you think will cause the most change? Is it simply being given the opportunity to make these kind of films?
Nate: One, I think it's racial healing. Until we are willing to face the fact that there is pervasive racism in Hollywood, then there can be no change. We can play at creating diversity, but until we are willing to say, "Everything we have right now is built on shaky ground. We need to shake up the shaky ground," then things won't change. They can just be ideas. I think that we need to not be distracted by symptoms. We need to be focused on the sickness. I think that once we do that collectively, things will change on their own. Then we can say, "Oh. Well, yeah. This is a racist perspective, or a prejudice or biased perspective on why people of this color, this background should or should not be in this film based on a value system." That needs to be broken. So once that's broken, then we will say, "Okay." Then when we go to cultivate material, we are not going to be exclusive to the material that we think can have a white lead and that can sell foreign. We'll be intentional about being diverse even in our selection process of what material to cultivate.
Everything you say inspires me to want to get out there and talk about this film more.
Nate: That's right. Change agents; that's what we're doing.
A huge thank you to Nate Parker for his time at Sundance, and to MPRM for arranging this.
Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation premiered at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on Monday afternoon. It eventually went on to the win the two top prizes of the festival - the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize. Fox Searchlight picked up the film for release during the festival, and will open it in theaters later this year.