The Birth of a Nation is the moving, incredibly powerful story of one man’s fight against injustice: Nat Turner, a slave and a man of faith, who lives his adult life preaching the Word of God surrounded by the brutal reality of slavery in Virginia.
Three years ago, Nate Parker decided that it was time to devote his professional life – and a good deal of his personal life, too – to bringing The Birth of a Nation, the true story of Nat Turner and the 1831 American slave rebellion he led, to the screen.
Parker intentionally gave his film the same title as DW Griffith’s 1915 silent film, The Birth of a Nation, which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as an ‘heroic’ force.
“I wanted to take that back and say ‘What you meant for hate, what you meant for propaganda and White supremacy, we are taking that back. Now it represents liberation.’”
Making the film has changed him, he says, in so many ways. “I always considered myself an activist first, and I always say that my art is a function of my activism.
“For Eric Garner, who was choked to death, I marched in the streets of New York City. All these things affected me, and I said that if I could use my art to combat social injustice and economic injustice, then I will feel like, when it’s all said and done, I have created a legacy that’s worthy of my children’s respect.”
It was a radical and, he admits, scary and high-risk plan: he would give up acting and invest his life savings in a bid to get his passion project into production. And at that time, it was very, very far from being a reality. It was, then, a huge gamble.
How did it feel, you wonder, turning his back on a hugely successful acting career – his films include The Great Debaters, The Secret Life of Bees, Red Tails and Non-Stop, amongst many others – at least temporarily, just as his hard work was paying off with bigger and better roles? “It was slightly irresponsible,” he laughs.
“But, at some point you ask yourself: ‘What’s my purpose? What will my legacy be?’ I just thought it was time to take control of that.
“I was making a film that had themes from Braveheart and Glory, so I thought it would be responsible for me to reach out to those directors. I reached out to Mel Gibson, who met me, read my script, and gave me thoughts and notes. He was very supportive.”
That gamble has paid off handsomely. Parker’s film – which he wrote, directed, produced and stars in as Turner – is finished, and premiered with a rapturous standing ovation and rave reviews, at the prestigious Sundance Festival, where it won both the US Dramatic Audience Award and the US Dramatic Jury Award.
Variety called it “searingly impressive”, and it is indeed a tour de force and vindication for the man who refused to give up on his dream of making it.
“I always had faith that it would get made,” he says. “I just didn’t know how far I would have to go and how much I would have to sacrifice. We talked about me stepping away from the business for two years, and the reality was that it could have been four, five years. I could have had a script, but I could still have been begging for money and maybe working at Wal-Mart at night.
“But I had to take those things to prayer, and I do believe in the power of prayer. I’m very much connected to my faith, now more so than ever, and I think that brought me closer to Nat, because here is a man who spent most of his time praying.”
The Birth of a Nation is out in cinemas on December 9th.