In the midst of this year’s #OscarSoWhite controversy Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation has taken the Sundance Film Festival by storm, not only receiving rave reviews and standing ovations during screenings, but landing the highest acquisition deal in the film festival’s history.
Nate Parker’s film about the 1831 Nat Turner slave rebellion serves as a biographical drama. It tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave, preacher, and insurrection leader through hard hitting dramatizations of historical events surrounding his life and the rebellion he orchestrated. Turner’s rebellion called on enslaved and free blacks in the region of Southhampton County, VA to band together, and go from plantation to plantation killing white slave owners and freeing slaves.
If you don’t know who Nat Turner, it comes as no surprise considering the erasure of black people and their contributions to the building of this country from the history books. This is what inspired Parker to make this film. In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter he describes not learning of Nat Turner and his rebellion until he took an African-American studies class at The University of Oklahoma, despite having grown up in Virginia.
“Imagine my dismay in learning that one of the greatest men to walk the soil in this country was a man who grew up and lived and breathed and fought less than 100 miles from where I grew up.”
While Parker believed in this project and getting to portray this forgotten hero, upon embarking on this journey he was given a barrage of reasons as to why a Nat Turner film wouldn’t work. From the usual culprits like movies with black leads don’t play internationally, and a period film wouldn’t work without a big box-office star as the lead, to period films with big fight scenes are too expensive, it’s too violent, and lastly that Turner was too controversial because he orchestrated the killing of a bunch of white people.
Rather than buy into Hollywood’s belief that a Nat Turner film wouldn’t be well received Parker pressed on and focused on securing funding. Parker’s passion and dedication to the project helped him acquire the $10 million needed to make the film.
When speaking with The Hollywood Reporter Jason Michael Berman of Mandalay Pictures had this to say about Parker’s ability to win over anyone.
“Anytime Nate got on the phone with anybody or got in the room with anyone, they were completely intrigued by him. The subject matter was tough — everybody knew that — but when they met Nate Parker, his drive, his passion and his determination were what sold them.”
The cast of The Birth Of A Nation includes Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and How to Get Away With Murder‘s Aja Naomi King. Union’s character however doesn’t speak a single line in the film, a intentional decision made by her and Parker.
“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,” she explained to Vulture.
It’s clear the Parker wants this film to educate, and spark important conversations regarding racism and the history of our nation. Parker’s choice to title the film The Birth Of A Nation serves to in some way reclaim the phrase from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name, which offensively portrayed black men and women while glorifying the Ku Klux Klan. It is to act as a reminder of the dark history surrounding the birth of the United States and the forgotten heroes like Turner, who played a significant role in forming this nation. When speaking with Deadline he described wanting to create a film that would captivate audiences, and ultimately push them towards taking individual action that promotes change.
“It’s kind of like a battle cry from a filmmaking standpoint. I wanted a film that people could watch and be affected—almost hold them hostage in the theater, where they have to see these images, and they have to see the parallels and the themes that are echoing right now in 2016…And then they can’t unknow it, they can’t unsee what they saw, and when they leave they’ll have to ask themselves, ‘What is my role?’ and ‘Am I doing all I could be doing?’”
The overnight bidding war that ensued following the screening of The Birth Of A Nation only further dispels Hollywood’s long held beliefs regarding films with black leads. Fox Searchlight came out on top beating Netflix’s reportedly $20 million offer to distribute the film with a $17.5 million offer. Parker believes the fact that there was bidding war in itself is a powerful statement.
“There is a system, that is based on race, that says African American films don’t sell. So this is a win for independent filmmakers, this is a blow against white supremacy and racism in this country and abroad.”
Source: The Hollywood Reporter & Deadline