When The Birth of a Nation debuted at the Sundance Film Festival in January, first-time feature director Nate Parker received a standing ovation before the movie began. At the time, the movie industry was reeling after the Academy Awards failed to recognize any actors of color for the second consecutive year, and Parker’s indie about Nat Turner’s 1831 slave uprising represented an answer to that controversy — and quickly sold to Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million. Now the studio prepares for the nationwide opening of his film amid a climate of increasingly fraught race relations, and they aren’t holding back. The new poster, which depicts Parker as Turner with a noose made out of an American flag around his neck, illustrates Parker’s desire to confront America’s history head-on.
“The reality is the birth of this nation is rooted in things we don’t want to talk about,” says Parker, who purposely titled his film after D.W. Griffith’s notorious 1915 silent film that championed the Ku Klux Klan. “Just because we don’t want to talk about them does not mean they don’t exist. It’s as simple as that.”
Shot in Savannah, The Birth of a Nation traces the life of Turner, a peaceful preacher manipulated by wealthy Virginians to placate their slaves, who transformed himself into a leader of a violent insurrection that resulted in the deaths of dozens of slave owners and struck lasting fear in the hearts of Southern whites.
When Parker set out eight years ago to make a film about Turner, he wasn’t interested in exploiting the usual tropes presented in movies set in the antebellum South. There would be no two-dimensional demonic slave owners, no victimized black people waiting for a savior. No clichés.
“This is not a film about good black people and bad white people,” says Parker. “I wanted to create this environment where you saw human beings doing everything they could just to experience the complexities of being a human being: love, faith, and family ties.”
For Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder), playing Turner’s wife, Cherry, was an exercise in humanity and brutality. Cherry is a desperate slave introduced on the auction block, but we learn her power quickly when she bursts out of a covered wagon and attacks Nat, fearful of what’s to come. “I wanted to give her the sense of how powerful she was, how strong,” says King. “Even though she is clearly damaged, she is not broken.”
Confronted with such overwhelming trauma and tragedy, Parker had to determine what he wanted to show and what to leave to the audience’s imagination. Ultimately, he made the decision to omit scenes of rape and physical assault in exchange for the aftereffects of the abuse. “That’s the pathology, and I’m not going to exploit the pathology,” he says.
Parker courted a slew of experts for his crash course in filmmaking. Director Ed Zwick (Glory) urged him not to be precious when cutting his script to fit his meager $10 million budget. Director James Mangold (Walk the Line) helped him avoid platitudes. Screenwriter Robin Swicord (The Curious Case of Benjamin Button) taught him visualization exercises and meditation techniques to connect him to the spirit of the era. And Spike Lee sat in his edit bay, giving him notes on his final cut. “This was my first rodeo,” says Parker. “I was desperate to learn more.” According to King, Parker mastered the task with detailed command of every aspect of the set, from camera placement to costume details. “He had built that world so specifically, it was like we were there,” King says. “It was really beautiful.”
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