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, ...1