I was curious to see how “The Birth of a Nation” — which I first saw at Sundance, where it drew two standing ovations and won the jury and audience prizes — would play for a real audience; in this case, at UCLA Extension’s fall screening series Sneak Previews.
As I watched the film again, I recognized the power of this handsomely mounted movie. Writer-director Nate Parker carefully crafted the (mostly) historically accurate story to show how, in 1831, the charismatic and educated slave Nat Turner (Parker) preached the gospel around his Virginia county, to the enrichment of his childhood playmate and master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer), in order to placate the local restless slave population, many of them living under far worse conditions.
He witnessed horror after horror, including the brutal gang rape of his beloved wife (Aja Naomi King), which eventually sent him on a mission of righteous vengeance from the Lord. He organized a slave rebellion that kills over 60 people. The narrative, thanks to a strong script, cast and direction, is straightforward, disturbing, and compelling.
Ryan Kobane, Courtesy of Sundance Institute
The crowdpleaser worked at Sundance, Toronto, and it did again at Sneak Previews. There’s no denying it plays with audiences. And most reviewers, looking at the film on its own terms, are upbeat. But there are many people angry at Nate Parker, including a group of women who staged a candlelight sit-in vigil on opening night at Los Angeles’ Arclight Cinemas.
Why so angry? They’re standing with victims of rape, and against Parker’s steadfast refusal to apologize on “60 Minutes” and other media outlets, for his behavior 17 years ago in college when a young woman accused him and a friend of rape. Parker was acquitted; the friend was convicted, but set free on appeal.
Producers Kevin Turen (“All Is Lost”) and Preston Holmes (“She Hate Me”) attended the Sneak Previews screening and spoke candidly about the film, and Parker. “I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes going through all this,” Holmes said. “[In the movie] when Nat is walking through the angry crowd at the end heading for the gallows, is what it feels like for Nate right now. All he’s trying to do is get people to focus on the movie itself. Whatever they think about him and what happened 17 years ago, his biggest concern is that it not detract from the film itself.”
Fox Searchlight will find out this weekend whether they will get back their $17.5 million minimum guarantee, plus some $10 million in marketing, when the movie opens on over 2,000 screens this weekend. (Read our Box Office preview.)
Anne Thompson: How did you develop the script?
Kevin Turen: Nate and I worked in 2011 on “Arbitrage.” He gave me the script, it was 180 pages, he put in so much research, he was already four years into it.
He worked on the film for eight years?
Yes, eight years, he quit acting, put his entire life on hold. It was a labor of love. The first script had so much factual information, it needed to be turned into a film. He worked every day for years on it.
How did he make it more narratively palatable?
One of Nate’s qualities, is he listens to everybody. He went to the Sundance labs, took notes from people, he made it better than ever. He’s one of those guys, if you give him a task, he’ll do it. Before shooting, he had to cut another 20 pages. Every single line he knew in his head, he kept working on it.
How historically accurate is the movie? How much is known about Turner?
Preston Holmes: Nate knows as much as anyone. He had been researching this for years, before this script, there was the William Styron book [“The Confessions of Nat Turner”], which was full of inaccuracies and fictionalized to a large extent. Nate wanted to try as much as possible to dig up the truth.
Did Nat Turner have a wife? Are the characters in the film real?
Holmes: All the characters are real, some of them are combined. Turner was sold by a few different owners, so for economy’s sake we kept it at the Turner plantation.
African-Americans consider Nat Turner a hero, but do schools teach his story?
Holmes: When I was in school in Kansas City, one teacher made a point of giving us American history from the African-American point of view, so I did learn about Nat Turner and some of the other slaves who rebelled against the institution of slavery. But it’s not taught in most schools.
This film shows an angry black man in a way no mainstream movie ever would.
Holmes: I don’t think you’d ever see this in a mainstream movie. It was done the only way it could be done. If Nate had taken the script to a studio, I don’t think it would have happened; if it had, it would be a different film. If they made it at all.
Finding the financing was labyrinthine. Your list of producers is long.
Turen: This film had no historical precedent on paper. Films are traditionally financed with soft money, foreign presales, and equity is usually 25%-35% of the film. This was period, African-American themed, with zero international value. We made the film with all equity financing, which meant that if it didn’t turn out, investors would lose all their investment. So we needed to find people who believed in Nate.
It took years, multiple people fell out, it got made. We just had to keep trying. I was constantly in doubt about whether it would get made. Nate went door to door on his own dime around the country. Athlete manager Ben Renzo gave money, Michael Finley and some basketball players, a New York dentist gave $75,000, Toronto producer Aaron Gilbert came in for the final big piece, at big risk. We met for four hours, he was in, crying at the end.
It took a village to make this, we cobbled together money from 18 different parties with no business plan. We had to get as much as we could from as any different sources as possible.
What was the final budget?
Holmes: $8.5 million.
Where did you shoot?
Savannah, Georgia. It was hot, bug-infested, uncomfortable, and it rained. It was challenging, but we shot the period film with action in 27 days on schedule with a lot of good breaks. It comes down to the passion Nate had for the project, it was infectious. Every time he met somebody, whether investors or PAs, all they had to do was meet Nate and talk about his project and vision and they were sold. That’s what sustained us.
You got into Sundance, where you needed to sell the movie for all those investors. Anxious or confident?
Holmes: We were confident, we knew we had made a good film. We had no idea what happened once we got there.
Turen: I’m always anxious. I was never happy, until the very end, when we were doing color corrections: “OK, this works.” What happened with the sale, we did not see that coming, the number of buyers.
How many? Netflix was the highest bidder with $20 million?
Turen: We had five studios bidding, and Netflix was the highest bidder but we didn’t counter at that bid. We met with Searchlight. When we made the film that was the distributor we wanted, so for everybody that was a no brainer.
Because you wanted a theatrical release? Which audiences were you trying to reach?
Holmes: Nate would say all audiences, certainly all the American viewing public. This is an American story, about someone who was an American hero. It’s an incident that makes us all look at a painful period in American history and one that we are still living through the residual effects of.
The film’s original narrative involved Oscars and awards. The second narrative, however, was about Parker’s rape scandal, which he has had a tough time escaping. How has Parker handled this?
Holmes: I wouldn’t want to be in his shoes going through all this. [In the movie] when Nat is walking through the angry crowd at the end heading for the gallows, is what it feels like for Nate right now. All he’s trying to do is get people to focus on the movie itself. Whatever they think about him and what happened 17 years ago, his biggest concern is that it not detract from the film itself.
He’s having trouble getting that message across. After the blood, sweat and tears that went into the movie, people are not listening to what is important to him?
Holmes: At the end of the day, the work should stand for itself.
Turen: The proof will be this weekend when it opens. Nate handled all this with dignity. He’s a guy I’ve known for five years, benevolent, one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. To watch him go through this with family and friends, it’s hard on his family. He’s been stronger than I would have been. It does suck to see this happening to a great guy. I hope people lose themselves in the story and judge it by the content, not the controversy surrounding it.
Why do you think some women are planning to stage a protest at the opening? Where is that anger coming from?
Holmes: Anger, because rape is a serious subject always, and it should be. And that’s why I don’t think this conversation is going to go away. And I think that now that this has all come out I am not at all surprised that people are talking about demonstrations. Those issues do need to be dealt with. We need to deal with issues of sexual assault and toxic masculinity… It’s not a bad thing that this is being discussed in this particular case. But it’s unfortunate for a couple of reasons, not the least of which is the man was acquitted and he never hid any of this. So.
Let’s open up to some questions.
Audience question: Why did you choose the title “The Birth of a Nation? Was the title in the public domain?
Holmes: Yes. The choice of the title was intentional. Our film was made 100 years after the original “The Birth of a Nation.” Nate has said, he always had that title in mind, for this film about Nat Turner. He was all too familiar with the original film and its significance to the history of cinema in this country, but it’s also a blatantly racist film that was given a lot of attention at the time, screened at the White House. Nate felt he needed to reclaim that title “The Birth of a Nation” and focus on another element of the history of this country and the story of our nation.
Thompson: In “13th,” Ava DuVernay deconstructs how the film rejuvenated the KKK and invented the image of the burning cross as well as the mythology of the black criminal that has had such impact on our culture.
Audience: Did the final cut of the film try to speak to the Black Lives Matter movement in our history?
Turen: Not at all, it seems like it was time for the film to come out now, but if Nate had had his way the film would have come out six years ago. Everything in the film, the people being killed, was in the original draft.
Audience: Did the film pull punches in terms of the violence?
Holmes: Pretty much all of those moments in the film were there in the original script. I don’t recall any being removed from the script. From the beginning, those were the moments Nate envisioned all along.
Thompson: Was there any calibration of what the audience would accept in the editing room?
Turen: It was his specific vision. Some scenes were toned down for emotional impact so as not to distract.
Audience: Has the film screened for African-American audiences?
Turen: With no film I’ve ever been part of have I seen reaction like this. We’ve had screenings where 90% of the audience left in tears. It works for everybody, particularly in the African American community.
Holmes: It played well with every audience we’ve screened it for so far. African-American audiences, I found, exhibit a little more anger at the end of the film. It’s difficult to watch. I felt that way with other films that deal with this period in our history, whether “Roots” or “Twelve Years a Slave.” But in none of the other films do you see efforts to rebel against the oppression by the slaves. That’s a major point. African-American audiences relate to that.
Audience: How have white audiences reacted to the film? I was embarrassed, empathetic, and fearful, about what’s going on in the world and in the U.S.
Turen: We’ve experienced a lot of empathy.