A Conversation with Nate Parker about 'The Birth of a Nation'

CT talks to the writer, director, and star of the highly-anticipated film about his faith and race in America.
A Conversation with Nate Parker about 'The Birth of a Nation'
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures
Nate Parker in 'The Birth of a Nation'

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 cast and crew of 'The Birth of a Nation' at the film's Sundance premiere in January 2016

The cast and crew of 'The Birth of a Nation' at the film's Sundance premiere in January 2016

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.”

Nate Parker, Jayson Warner Smith, and Armie Hammer in 'The Birth of a Nation'
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nate Parker, Jayson Warner Smith, and Armie Hammer in 'The Birth of a Nation'

One thing that really struck me as I was watching it at Sundance is how much Scripture is in the film—wall-to-wall Scripture.

More than any film that's ever been made, from my research.

That was striking. It shows how Scripture can be used to oppress people or to liberate them.

That's exactly right.

When you were working on the screenplay for the film, what were you reading? Where were you going to help put it all together?

A lot of it was finding the balance between Old Testament and New Testament. What kept me focused was the reality that God's word doesn't come back void. The Bible is the Bible, and it is the living word of God. Nat Turner knew that; he'd studied the Bible since he was a child. The same word that he read cover to cover was the tool that he'd been given by God.

As people of faith, we understand that there are no coincidences. He was given [the Bible] to study. The more he felt that he was at a crossroads with the human beings living around him, the more he had to ask himself, Well, if this book is my tool, and it's no coincidence that I have it, and God is real, then these people can't be right.

I scoured the Bible for specific instances of characters or people who were outnumbered, who were oppressed, who were enslaved, who were subjugated, who were manipulated. Then I looked for instances when those very people became radical, in the sense that they decided that they wanted their freedom then. We think about David, or we think about Jericho, or we think of any of these situations where reality was bent toward the people of God for them to achieve his will. You can call them miracles. Those are the times that I used specific Scripture for his motivation.

Nate Parker and Colman Domingo in 'The Birth of a Nation'
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nate Parker and Colman Domingo in 'The Birth of a Nation'

At other times, I looked very specifically for instances in the Bible, for instance in Ephesians, where [the text] seemed to validate slavery. I used it in the same way that people of the time would've used it to keep people in chains—literally, figuratively, and psychologically. . . .

[I hoped] Christians would be put at a crossroads, that this would be a moment where they have to ask themselves, Wow, this is the Word, but it's very clearly being used to oppress—Where is the line?

I feel like we see that a lot in 2016—more often now than I ever could've imagined. I ask myself: if Christ was here, how would he react to the misuse and misrepresentation of his name and his actions? How might we be more effective in holding ourselves as Christians accountable to his actual word? I, for one, believe that partisanship should have nothing to do with the actions of Christ. You're either Christlike, or you're not.

There are so many things done now in the name of God that even Christianity as a faith needs to be reclaimed—which is another reason why I wanted to tell this story.

When people ask me about my faith, I boldly proclaim that I'm Christian. But because of the way the Word is being used to manipulate here in 2016, there often a scowl, as if to say, It seems as though you would be smarter than one that would subscribe to some of the things I'm hearing and seeing about Christianity. Here [in Nat Turner's story] was a very clear metaphor—a parable, so to speak, that people can see and understand, that the Bible hasn't changed and it won't, and yet the way people interpret it is constantly in flux.

We talk a lot about racial division in the church—how black churches and predominately white churches are often separated, or that Latinos are a growing demographic among evangelicals. I'm wondering if you think the film has anything to say about healing that racial divide.

The reality is that people don't talk about it. And, plain and simple, that's discrimination. The separation, whether it be implicit or explicit, is sin.

Because of our injuries—the trauma of slavery in this country, specifically slavery—and because there hasn't been any healing, it has become this taboo subject. It's that adage: the most segregated time in America is Sunday morning at ten o'clock in the morning. It's the truth--and a lot of it has to do with this: what God do we serve?

I ask your readers or ask my supporters, What kind of Christian are you? I asked that at Sundance: Are you a Nat Turner Christian, or are you a Christian like those who hung him and decapitated him and skinned his body and crushed his flesh to grease?

Nate Parker on the poster for 'The Birth of a Nation'
Image: Fox Searchlight Pictures

Nate Parker on the poster for 'The Birth of a Nation'

It was a very honest question. I think at some point we have to be followers of Christ, not followers of White Christ, or any other color Christ, for that matter. But the reality is, that's not the lot we've been given in this country. When we talk about Christianity, or we talk about angels, or we talk about the afterlife, it's all seen through a Europeanized lens. (I won't even say white, because reality is, we're not white—no one is. Race is a social construct, but a social construct that has been very clearly used as a tool to segregate, manipulate, divide, and marginalize.)

But that doesn't change the power of Christ or the power of the Word. That just reminds us that people are fallible, and they will always be. They will always be dealing with sin.

You used the word healing—it's spot on. That is my main motivation with the film. Any psychologist will tell you that healing comes from honest confrontation with our injury or with our past. Whatever that thing is that has hurt us or traumatized us, until we face it head on, we will have issues moving forward in a healthy way.

I challenged my pastor to do something during opening week—and this is something that I would love to inspire across the country: that pastors be held accountable to reaching out to churches that we'd consider either black churches or white churches, and doing congregation swaps, where they send half their congregation to the other church and the other church do the same.

Can imagine the dialogue that would inspire nationally and globally? What if we could use this as a launchpad toward recovering and healing from the injury of the past that we didn't create, but we've inherited? Imagine if every church in America made a goal to be integrated over the opening weekend, and then after church just simply engage as they would when church is dismissed like they would at their own church.

The reality is, some would participate, and some would balk. Not only would some balk, but some would be so diametrically opposed to the idea, in the name of God. But that is when we should be the people who would stand against that type of thinking. That is the type of thinking that keeps the cycle strong. Our children see it, and their children see it, and it is further perpetuated throughout time.

You keep mentioning 2016. I know it took eight years to make this movie happen. Do you have the feeling that there was a purpose behind that delay, now that you're seeing what's happening in 2016?

The interesting thing is if we would've been talking in 2015, then I would be saying 2015. In 2012, I'd be saying 2012. In the time we're living in, things are not getting better—they're getting worse. More than ever, it's time for the church to stand up in the way that it has in the past and be the mouthpiece of justice, in love, in peace. We can't do that unless we heal. I have been carrying this film for eight years and I had no idea this film would be made now, that it would premiere in October, or that there would be any political implications.

It was not by design—but as we know, there is divine purpose and a divine order. I accept that. I ask myself: will we be able to recognize the connection between 1831 and 2016 or 2017? Will we as Christian people be able to stand up for Christ rather than choosing to be red or blue and politicized? It should be a call to action for all of us.

When you look at the Civil Rights Movement, you look at the Revolutionary War, you look at any of these instances where America was put at a crossroads and then had to either grow or shrink—the church stepped up.The church was always the first responder to tragedy, to sin, to injustice, to racial disparity.

Some of the greatest leaders of our time moved with Christ. But we're seeing less and less of that. We're seeing prosperity being preached, but we're not seeing sin being preached. I think that's an issue. I would pray that this film will be an opportunity for us people of faith to come together in a way that is real and honest, in a way that is uncomfortable.

The church has had a lack of involvement [in this healing process], and then society is left to its scientists and to its academics to draw conclusions. As we know, when that happens without God, things don't always end in a way that's infused with peace and love.

The Birth of a Nation will be released by Fox Searchlight Pictures on October 7, 2016. You can find Nate Parker on Twitter at @NateParker.

Alissa Wilkinson is Christianity Today's critic at large and an associate professor of English and humanities at The King's College in New York City. She is co-author, with Robert Joustra, of How to Survive the Apocalypse: Zombies, Cylons, Faith, and Politics at the End of the World (Eerdmans). She tweets @alissamarie.

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A Conversation with Nate Parker about 'The Birth of a Nation'