Nate Parker took seven years to write the screenplay for The Birth of a Nation.
The film, which Parker also stars in and directed, created a buzz at this year’s Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. It tells the story of Nat Turner, a slave boy who learns to read and becomes a preacher in antebellum Virginia.
His masters hope Turner’s preaching will lead other slaves to be more subservient, so Nat is sent to other plantations to preach to the slaves. But his knowledge of the Bible and his exposure to the true misery of slavery soon lead Turner to encourage his fellow slaves to rebel against their masters. The rebellion left 60 slave owners and hundreds of slaves dead.
Parker said the film looks at the origins of issues that African-Americans still have to deal with.
“My job as a filmmaker is to create content, to seek out material, to develop material that I think will help be progressive and deal with some of the systemic issues that we are dealing with," he said. "So to be able to write a project and then to go out and get it financed and attach talent, and to go and shoot the movie, and then to have Sundance recognize it and validate it and say, ‘This is something we think is worth showing to the world and getting behind and sponsoring,’ I think those are the steps that we need to take.”
Armie Hammer, who plays Turner’s master, Samuel Turner, said that even though this was Parker’s directorial debut, he ran the set like a seasoned veteran.
“He showed up on the first day ... and he was like, 'Put that camera over there, put this lens on. and bring me a viewfinder with this lens. and move this light six feet this way, you two stand on that mark and get over there. ... I mean, he walked on the set with the confidence and skill and ability of someone who has directed 50 movies before,” Hammer said.
Oscars and diversity
The film comes at a time when Hollywood is wrestling with a lack of diversity in its Oscar nominees. Parker said the Oscar issue is just a symptom of a much wider problem.
“I think the sickness is the fact that there is a certain level of racism that exists, not only in society, obviously, but in Hollywood," he said. "A lot of it has to do with the legacy of slavery and the legacy of the injury that we've endured. ... So I just think that we want to be a change factor with this film and we want to, as artists, challenge systems that we think are unjust or need attention.”
Hammer said Parker’s passion for the project carried the cast and crew through some difficult scenes.
“You could feel this passion bleeding out of him while we were doing this," Hammer said. "Everybody else will be getting tired, everybody else would be uncomfortable with the subject matter, which at some points in the film gets heavier. But he would be there, unwavering, just the perfect leader for the project, really."
The film received several standing ovations at its premier in Park City. Fox Searchlight pictures has paid a record $17.5 million for the rights, $7 million more than the previous record for Little Miss Sunshine.