By: Martha Ugwu
One of the major highlights to come out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival was the premiere of Nate Parker’s daring directorial debut in The Birth of a Nation. Not only did Parker direct the film, but he also wrote, produced, and starred as the movie’s hero, Nat Turner.
For Parker, this film has been passionate dream of his since his days of attending the University of Oklahoma. In an interview he did with PEOPLE magazine, Parker speaks highly of Turner, whose story captivated him as a young man.
“In college, if someone [asked] me who my hero [was], the answer they’d get without hesitation was Nat Turner,” he told People.
He goes on to explain how he tries to model his own life as Turner’s, using his ideology
about righteousness and faith. Now, that obsession has culminated in the creation of a powerful independent film which just won the two top prizes at Sundance, the U.S. Dramatic Grand Jury Prize and the U.S. Dramatic Audience Award. It also made history when Fox Searchlight bought the distribution rights to the film for a record-setting $17.5 million, the highest sale in the
festival’s history, thus solidifying the film’s status as a possible commercial success and a serious contender for the Oscars in 2017.
The Birth of a Nation, which shares the same name with D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film based on The Clansmen, recounts the famous 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner, an African-American slave and preacher who, fueled by anger from the atrocities he’s witnessed, convinces his fellow slaves to stand up against their masters. The script draws its inspiration from the first-hand account of Turner’s confessions as recorded by Thomas Ruffin Gray in The Confessions of Nat Turner and from William Styron’s 1968 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel of the same name. Aside from Parker, the film also stars Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, and Aja Naomi King. Unlike 2013’s Oscar winner for Best Picture, 12 Years a Slave, which was praised for its artfulness and the dignity it brought to the tale of Solomon Northup, Parker’s Birth of a Nation uses a more gritty approach while bringing the events of the rebellion to light on the silver screen, providing a raw and unflinching portrayal of the brave men and women who fought willingly for their freedom. In comparison to its flagrantly racist 1915 counterpart, this film is more based in realism and makes an emphatic attempt to alleviate some of the stigma associated with the belief that slaves allowed themselves to be treated with such cruelty.
What makes the timing of The Birth of a Nation so significant is not only that it is happening a little over 100 years after the release of the first blockbuster in movie history, but that it comes at a time where so many eyes are locked on the current state of diversity in Hollywood films and the recognition of non-white actors for their work. With so many people pushing for the movie industry to make strides to be more inclusive, a film like The Birth of a Nation can potentially change the way African-Americans are treated in Hollywood, both in front of and behind the camera. For Nate Parker, whose most notable film credits include Non-Stop, Red Tails, and The Great Debaters, this passion project is his opposition to the lack of dignified roles for black actors. If all the pieces fall in the right places, The Birth of a Nation can inspire a new generation of filmmakers who will use their artistic voices to address the problems in society that often get overlooked or suppressed.