Nate Parker of The Birth of a Nation Talks Pride, Faith and the Revolutionary Spirit

Nate Parker of The Birth of a Nation
Nate Parker of The Birth of a Nation

Nate Parker on Pride, Faith and Revolution in The Birth of a Nation

As the poor son of a single teenage mother in Virginia, Nate Parker, “I wasn’t proud of being black growing up. I  didn’t feel like I had a reason to be proud, to be completely honest, growing up in the projects with nothing.”

Then he heard the story of a fellow Virginian, a preacher and a slave named Nat Turner who led a violent slave rebellion in 1831. From that moment on, Parker would never look at himself, or America, in the same way again.

“To learn that someone that had skin and pigment that looked like mine was part of the narrative of America, that really leant this voice to the narrative that is America, that did what so many of our forefathers did in the American Revolution, gave me such a sense of pride and self-esteem,” he says. “If we were to call ourselves American, we need to know the whole America. We need to have more of an identity of who we are.”

Nate Parker Directs and Stars as Nat Turner in The Birth of a Nation

Parker channeled these epiphanies into “The Birth of a Nation,” the powerful film that awed festival audiences at Sundance and Toronto and became an early contender for an Academy Award. Turner directed and co-wrote the film and stars as Turner, whose rebellion left more than 50 white people dead and led to the revenge mob killings of more than 200 black people.

Though depicting events of more than 180 years ago, Parker tells Made in Hollywood reporter Patrick Stinson that he believes the themes of “The Birth of a Nation” resonate today.

“Looking back at this time really gives us insight into solutions that we can have moving forward or how we can really deal with some of the issues we’re dealing with now,” Parker says.

It all begins, he says, with the unique person who was Turner. “He was a man of faith and he was a man of a revolutionary spirit, and they don’t have to conflict with each other,” Parker says. “It was his faith that inspired him. It wasn’t some knee-jerk reaction of revenge. It was him really feeling like if something were to change, it would first start with him. And that’s what I want, hopefully, to be the change mechanism in each individual that sees the film.”

Nate Parker on Worrying The Birth of Nation Would Suffer from Good Intentions

Making a film with such heady messages, however, proved a delicate task for Parker, who worried that “The Birth of a Nation” would be smothered by its lofty intentions. He recalls the first screenings tat the Sundance Film Festival and the Toronto International Film Festival, with Parker so nervous he gripped the seat and silently prayed.

“You don’t know how people are going to take it because we’re human beings, we have taste and we don’t know how to explain it,” he says. “When you make a film that has a social core, and you’re hoping people can get something from it, but you don’t want them to feel preached to, there are so many psychological obstacles, the insecurity. Will people get where I was going with it?”

That the festival audiences stood and cheered gave him the first spine-tingling affirmations “that this is a film that has a place in 2016,” he says. “I always say my art is an instrument of my activism. I have children, and hopfully those children will have healthy children, and hopefully I’ll leave something to them, and my legacy, that they will be able to point to my children and say my dad tried, he tried to do something.”