On January 25, I settled into the balcony of the Eccles Theater at the Sundance Film Festival, next to another critic. We'd already seen two movies that day and were getting ready for the third, but before the film even began the crowd gave it a standing ovation. By the time it was over, most of the audience was in tears, and the film received another standing ovation after the credits rolled. We all had a sense that something historic had happened that afternoon.
The film was The Birth of a Nation (read my Sundance review), the story of slave preacher Nat Turner and the 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia. In the film, Turner is (illegally) taught to read the Bible as a child by the mistress of the plantation on which he lived as a slave; as an adult, he becomes a preacher, and his study of Scripture as well as his observation of cruelty on the plantations he visits as a preacher leads him toward violent action. (The film has a great deal, thematically, in common with Braveheart.)
Nate Parker, who wrote, directed, and stars in the film as Turner, spoke on stage at Sundance after the film about the use of Scripture in the film and how his perseverance during the years-long struggle to get the movie made was partly fueled by his own Christian faith.
I spoke with Parker by phone last week, and he had a lot more to say about his faith, racial relations in America, the ways the Bible is used to both oppress and liberate, and the church. (This interview is lightly edited for clarity.)
How did you get interested in the story of Nat Turner?
It started from being young, growing up in Virginia, and not really having a lot of history that was being presented to me that included me. I was growing up as a Christian, growing up in the church, being very young, having heroes that were in the church—a pastor or deacon or family members—but never really having any type of hero I could point to as someone that sacrificed on behalf of people that looked like me, specifically.
That's significant, because of our legacy and connection to slavery. So often, when we don't have people that can be representative or symbolic of leadership and of faith, of purpose, in that absence we become bitter and resentful. And I did it without the context of my history.
I grew up 42 miles east of Nat Turner's rebellion. I didn't learn about him until college. When I did, it was just so overwhelming: here, you had a man who was a preacher and a person that was dedicated to his faith and to his God. He was put into a position where he had to ask himself if God was real. If he was called to lead, then how would he react to the subjugation that he felt daily—not only towards himself, but to others that looked like him around him?
That was a fascinating story. It checked all the boxes. You had the Braveheart of it—someone that was willing to die for the oppressed—but also someone that went to prayer and petitioned for every answer that he received.
It was a really interesting way to deal with the natural and the supernatural in a way that hadn't been done, and to really deal with some of the spiritual battles we're having here in 2016, when it comes to what it's like to be Christlike. I thought it would be very interesting to bring Christians to a crossroad. When you think about Nat Turner and what he did, if you're able to view this film without the baggage of racism, then it's very clearly a story of someone that was compelled by his faith to act as the hand of the God through his interpretation. There's black people killing white people, but with [Turner] very, very explicitly saying, “I have to cut the head from the serpent. I have to kill the evil. I have to destroy the evil that is subjugating us.”