The biggest story at this year's Sundance Film Festival undoubtedly concerns Nate Parker's breakout hit, "The Birth of a Nation," the multi-hyphenate's directorial debut, which sold to Fox Searchlight for a pocket-busting (and record-smashing) $17.5 million after a stunning premiere at the festival's Eccles Theatre on Monday night. But while the hefty purchase is setting the film world abuzz, for Parker, the real story isn't about money: It's about passion.
"The Birth of a Nation" follows the true story of Nat Turner, a Virginia slave who used his fierce intellect, profound faith and deep belief in his ability to change things to become a preacher (while still a slave) and eventually lead a 48-hour rebellion in 1831, 30 years before the American Civil War fired its first shot. Parker has been wanting to make this film for years (and, before him, Chris Rock had similar hopes to craft a feature around Turner's remarkable life), a desire so strong that he put his entire livelihood on the line, eventually rejecting other acting offers while he tried to get the film off the ground.
It's certainly already paid off for Parker, who introduced the film to a standing ovation only to be deluged by similar cheers at its conclusion, during its credits and at the post-screening Q&A. For Parker, it's been a dream come true, but it's also been "a bit surreal."
Indiewire sat down with Parker at the festival to talk about the unexpected affirmations of the premiere, why he put his career on hold to get the feature made and what the future looks like for the festival's biggest breakout.
At the premiere, you got a standing ovation before the movie even started. What did that feel like?
The feeling was a bit surreal, and it was as if time was standing still. I didn’t know what was happening. It took me a minute to get my bearings. I looked at [John] Cooper, and he looked at me and just shrugged. I was thinking to myself, "How incredible." Not just for the film, but the fact that there was a buzz about the potential this film had to create change agents. That’s what I think people were inspired by.
Anyone that’s heard things about the film or seen my interviews about the film-- I think people are ready to heal. There’s been a gaping wound caused by the legacy of slavery in this country, and we, up until this moment, have not been open to the idea of confronting that injury for the purpose of healing. It’s kind of been this dark history that we’ve sanitized so as not to feel guilty, as not to feel responsible, and as not to give up privilege.
The fact that people responded so soon affected me very deeply, and then to see the response after the film was such a confirmation. It made me feel like, not only did they come, hoping they would see something that would help facilitate a change in this country with respect to racial tension and injustice, they also felt that it actually paid off and it actually did what it was designed to do. I don’t mean to speak for my audience, but that’s what I felt.
People have been trying to get this film made for a very long time, and that response literally showed that there is an audience for this.
We all are the audience. I don’t know many people at all that will look you in the eye and say, "I don’t want racial harmony in this country" or "I don’t want to have change agents that go out to address injustices in our country, whether it’s racial justice, identity injustice or sexual injustice." I think everyone wants to see progress. I don’t think everyone has an answer.
I think everyone is looking for a solution. I’m just a filmmaker. I’m not a surgeon; they are important. I’m not a journalist; God knows they’re important. But I know I have a responsibility, as does the surgeon, as does the journalist, to recognize injustices in our environment and to address them. That’s just my attempt. My attempt is to say, "Well, if we can agree that there needs to be healing in this country from the injuries of our past, there should be honest confrontation, so we can deal with it."
There’s no other way past trauma, everyone knows that.
You said at the premiere that you put your acting career on hold until this movie could get made.
I did. There’s this fear of irrelevance in Hollywood where you’re completely programmed to believe, "If I go away or I don’t make one film a year, if I don’t make two films a year, if I’m not completely engrossed in my social media, you will become irrelevant, and people won’t care." I don’t think that’s the truth. If you create one movie every five years and it’s something that creates systemic change, people will respond and they will support you. I have to buy into that idea. I have to reprogram myself to believe that I am an artist.
Nina Simone said, "The artist’s job is to reflect the times." I said, "Well, what I am doing to reflect the times? Am I just waiting on a job or am I just making popcorn?" I said, "Look, if I am to do this, it will require sacrifices in the same way that it took a sacrifice for Nat Turner." There’s nothing I can do that will equal the sacrifice he made on behalf of his people. So I said, "Well, if I want to see this done, I have to put skin in the game. I have to put my career on the line. I have to put my financial stability on the line. I have to do it in a way that the people I need support from see it. So they will say, 'He’s serious. He’s not just saying give me some money so I can make some money. He’s saying if this doesn’t work, he’s over.'"
That’s what I did. I had just bought a house. I had a mortgage on the house. Imagine me coming home telling my wife, "The next skin I put on will be Nat Turner’s." I had a meeting with my agency and said, "Hey, guys, nothing’s going on. I just wrapped a movie Friday, but I have a desperate need to tell this story. So the next skin I’m in will be Nat Turner’s, no matter what. So if it takes me 10 years, if it takes me 15 years, this is what I’ll be pursuing until it happens or until I die."
That must have felt like a huge risk.
I think the real miracle is that I was able to put it together in that two-year period of time. It happened, and the thing that makes me emotional often is the fact that there was an option of it not happening. The desire to make this film could have come as a detriment to my career. I think that is why this is such a huge victory for independent film and independent filmmakers.
I developed this from the ground. I did the research with Jean Celestin, who has a story credit. He helped me write the treatment. I wrote the screenplay. I raised the money. I approached Sundance. I approached other writers and directors. Putting myself in danger with my last bit of money, I moved to Savannah. I said, "I’m here. So you guys can either do it or get off the pot." And they responded. The money was released and we shot this film. We had prep, and we shot it. I worked tirelessly. Once I did the film, I didn’t give it to the producers and say, "You guys finish it. I’m going to go make money by acting." I have stayed with this project to the bitter end, and I will continue to stay.
We’ve had such a blessing and wonderful opportunity to invite Fox Searchlight into our family and partner with them. So I will be working with them very closely, learning from them, developing strategy with them, figuring out how to make sure this has the global impact that we want it to have. We want it to address injustice everywhere, so that people can look at this film and go to an aboriginal village, watch this on mute and have an understanding of how it pertains to their own personal struggle, whatever that struggle is, and that they can be affected by it.
I think that’s the power of film, and that’s what makes Sundance so great. If there was no Sundance for a film like Nat Turner, it wouldn’t get done. They developed, cultivated and put me in contact with writers, editors and people that just helped get this project to where it is.
That’s one of the wonderful things about Sundance: It’s not just about showing your film, and that’s the end of it. They stick with their filmmakers.
They support the little guy. I say little in the context of people that don’t have corporate power when it comes to developing film. Working with Michelle Satter of the Sundance Institute was transformative when it came to this project. Without her, there is no "The Birth of a Nation." She championed it first. She released a grant. She reached out to A-list directors and A-list editors on my behalf to give me thoughts and notes. She also reached out to A-list and Academy Award-winning writers that looked at my script and gave me their thoughts.
Never once did any of those people say, "This is a story about difficult material," or "Is America ready to face this dark time?" Never! They said, "This is a script we believe in. This is a script that needs to be told. There is an impact we can see that will echo."
Your deal with Fox Searchlight is the biggest in Sundance history. Why did you go with Searchlight?
For a number of reasons. One, they’re tried and true. They put their heart and souls into their films, whether it be in getting them seen or elevating them in respect to awards so the film can be further recognized. I met with a number of people and they were all fantastic.
But what separated Searchlight was their desperate desire to collaborate and connect on a human level with me, my filmmakers and the material in Nat Turner. They understood the educational possibilities of this film, and what it can do with respect to re-educating our kids that are being short-changed when it comes to getting an honest representation of what this history was. They were just so open to strategy surrounding real systemic and sustainable change.
I always say this film is more than a film. It can be a movement if we all buy into the idea that change with respect to inequality rests within us. Not even within the political system, but us as individuals. This is a democracy and we all have a say. I think we need to have a say and say it.
When they released "12 Years a Slave," they made it an initiative to get the film into schools as part of the curriculum.
They were talking the talk, walking the walk.
That’s exactly right. They stepped up!
Make no mistake, it isn’t as if Fox Searchlight didn’t know they were willing to put in this much of a resource. They knew. I don’t want to speak for them, but I would imagine that they don’t have any desire but to do positive things with respect to this film. Their desire would be to make sure this film has the effect on the world that it’s had on the audience."The Birth of a Nation" premiered this week at the Sundance Film Festival. Fox Searchlight will release it later this year.
READ MORE: Sundance Review: The Brilliance of 'Birth of a Nation' Is Bigger Than the Movie