A film that’s long overdue, and couldn’t be more timely (I’m certainly really looking forward to it), is Nate Parker’s directorial debut (which he also stars in), “The Birth of a Nation” (I can only assume as a reaction/response to D.W. Griffith’s incendiary 1915 film of the same title), which will retell the August 21st, 1831 story, set in Virginia, of the Nat Turner led slave uprising, during which several dozen whites were killed before it was defeated. Turner was later captured, tried and hanged.
Soon after his execution, a local lawyer, Thomas Ruffin Gray, took it upon himself to publish “The Confessions of Nat Turner,” derived partly from research done while Turner was in hiding, and partly from prison conversations with Turner before trial.
184 years later, what appears to be a definitive film based on Nat Turner’s historic revolt (and not necessarily a Nat Turner biopic) is wrapping up principal photography this week, en route to an eventual theatrical release (we hope) some time in the not-too distant future.
Maybe the most notable Nat Turner film that currently exists is the hour-long documentary, “Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property,” directed by Charles Burnett, and released in 2003, which aired on PBS. However it’s not the full-length, scripted, big screen project that many have been hoping for.
As he told us in an interview while plugging “Non-Stop” over a year ago (the Liam Neeson airplane actioner): “One of my biggest passions is to play Nat Turner. That’s a project that we’re working to get done. A lot of people thought he was a bad guy, but it’s perspective. I don’t think he was a bad guy at all, but we all have our ideas of what we want and why we want it, and what we’ll do to achieve those things.”
That was in February 2014.
Parker emphasized his desire to see the project realized in a New York Times interview published in April 2014, in which he revealed a little more useful info: “I’m directing a film in the fall, a biopic on Nat Turner, who led the most successful slave revolt in American history. I call it the black ‘Braveheart.’ I wrote the script, I’m starring. That’s where I want to go. The goal for me is to push the envelope always.”
Of course, the “Breaveheart” he compares his film to is the 1995 epic historical war drama directed by Mel Gibson, who, like Parker, also starred, playing William Wallace, a 13th-century Scottish warrior who led the Scots in the First War of Scottish Independence against King Edward I of England. The film was nominated for 10 Academy Awards and won 5: Best Picture, Best Makeup, Best Cinematography, Best Sound Editing, and Best Director. It was also a box office success, grossing over $210 million worldwide, on a $72 million budget.
Might a similar fate lie ahead for Parker’s film? Time will eventually tell; although he likely isn’t working with quite the budget Mel Gibson had. Still… the show goes on, as there’s work to be done!
We of course later learned that the film, the recipient of a fellowship with the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program last year, and the backing of production companies Phantom Four, Mandalay Pictures, Tiny Giant Prods., Follow Through Prods., Infinity Entertainment and Creative Wealth Media Finance, will be called “The Birth of a Nation.”
Parker is also producing via his Bron Entertainment shingle, along with Aaron L. Gilbert, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman and Preston Holmes.
David Goyer is also among the film’s executive producers.
Joining Parker in front of the camera are Aja Naomi King (“How to Get Away With Murder”), Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Dwight Henry, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union and Arnie Hammer. No word yet on what roles exactly each actor plays.
A 2016 debut is likely; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it premieres at the Sundance Film Festival next year.
I uncovered the below TV news report on the film’s last days of photography, which aired on WTOC-TV, in Savannah, GA, on June 15. In the video report, you don’t get to see a lot of the actual production, but, as the reporter says, they are filming “a big scene” for the film – specifically the hanging scene (likely the hanging of Nat Turner after his trial and capture). There’s a shot of a guillotine, as well as a man (who looks like Nate Parker) with a noose around his neck. There are also lots of extras in costumes that reflect the time.
The reporter also adds that they started filming in the Savannah area on May 11, and will wrap up this week (today actually).