Watch Nate Parker's Rousing Tribeca Speech on Making 'Birth of a Nation'
"Will [my kids] look at me one day and ask me what I did? Or will they find themselves in a situation where they’re a victim of a system that I was too much of a coward to address?"
"It’s not enough to come to an event and shake your head and nod and then leave and say, ‘Yeah, we went to this thing, we did this thing, we talked about race, it was great. When’s our tee time?’ But that’s what we do!" said the writer, director and star of the slave-rebellion drama upon receiving the Theodore Parker Prize at the same ceremony that inspired him two years ago. "Apathy is the norm, not disruption."
After recalling moments of his "lonely" journey while making the Fox Searchlight release, based on the story of Nat Turner, an American-born slave who led the most successful slave rebellion in American history, Parker told the attendees, "Whatever inequality is living in your environment, attack it. ... Any injustice that lives in your community, it’s your job. If not, that may be the very injustice that takes hold of your children."
The annual event also honored Hamilton creator and star Lin-Manuel Miranda, The Cove and Racing Extinction director Louie Psihoyos, Charity Water founder and CEO Scott Harrison and American Civil Liberties Union executive director Anthony D. Romero — the latter saluted by a live call with Romero's client, Edward Snowden.
Read a transcript of Parker's speech below.
It’s important that we recognize that disruption is a lonely place. Being a disruptor is not easy. There are times where people will call you radical, there are times when the people that love you the most will discourage for your own best interests. I’m on the stage with a suit on and I have this hammer I never could’ve imagined be holding, but several months and years ago — it’s my eighth year carrying this project — I began to think about the legacy I was leaving behind, and my daughters and my family, and what they would say about me and my career.
Here in Hollywood and the arts, there’s this connection between commercial, capital and art and expression that you can’t always separate. You’re tied to this idea that if you are to have a career or be relevant, you have to compromise in some way, that the things that you want to see happen in your art have to be put on the side burner for this career that you can have, to show you have success. But at some point, after going home and seeing your kids and looking them in the eye, and flipping the news so they can’t see the things that are happening in the world, you have to ask yourself, "Will I be help accountable by them? Will they look at me one day and ask me what I did? Or will they find themselves in a situation where they’re a victim of a system that I was too much of a coward to address?" That is what brought me to this project.
I remember the day I sat in front of my team and I told them I would not act again, and I was going to give up the craft unless I could play Nat Turner and make a film that I thought would really further the conversation about race and justice in this country, by simply putting it up in a way that we can honestly confront it as a means of healing from the injuries of our past and trauma. Of course, they tried to discourage me, and it wasn’t because they didn’t believe in me, it was because they had grown so bitter and apathetic of what art could do. But I thank the Lord for my mom and for those who believed in me, because if not for them, I may have quit.
A lot of times, you don’t know that your actions will lead you to a place where people are exciting, clapping and standing up. When you’re in the middle of it, you just think, "I may die doing this. Why did I make that declaration? Why am I being stubborn?" Then you go home and you see your kids. This has been a very emotional journey for me. I stopped acting for two years, and you never know how much money you spend in a month and what your expenses are until you stop working! My wife, who has been the biggest supporter of me, I remember her sitting down and saying, "Uh, I need you to see some things." We looked at some bills and I was like, "Who uses that much water? Turn off the lights, just turn them off!"
But innovation, disruption, I think it requires something that we’re seeing in Max [Kenner], Adam [Foss] and so many of the other honorees. It takes courage and it takes sacrifice. I don’t think we can see the things we want to see in the world happen without giving something up, whether it be a privilege or a luxury, whether it be time. Whatever it is, it’s gonna take sacrifice, discomfort and pain. That’s what makes it so difficult.
When there’s a system in place — as a system we saw in slavery, a system that they were very well-intentioned people that weren’t part of it, but were complicit just by being in the system, just by existing in the United States of America, they were complicit in the system. No matter how good they tried to be, no matter what they tried to do to say, "I’m gonna teach him to read even though I own his body." We have to ask ourselves, are there any systems here in 2016 that need attention? In the economic space, educational space, social justice space? The next question is, what are we willing to do? That’s the question that I ask you all. What are we willing to do? Because it’s not enough to come to an event and shake your head and nod and then leave and say, "Yeah, we went to this thing, we did this thing, we talked about race, it was great. When’s our tee time?’ But that’s what we do!
Apathy is the norm, not disruption. So how do we change that? All the people that I’ve seen come up on this stage, they come here polished and they smile and they tell you their journey, but their journey is a journey. It’s not the third weekend of the month at the Y. They’re dedicating their lives to it.
So when you are all old — if you’re blessed to get that way because there are no old people in this room — and there’s an oil painting on the wall and you have your nice dress on or whatever, and you’re dead and gone or your on your way, and your kids look at you, what are they gonna say? I struggle with that even now. This is just a movie, this is just my first artistic representation, hopefully I can have more. But I toil with that every day: When I’m gone, will I have had an impact?
That’s why this means so much to me. Craig [Hatkoff, Tribeca Film Festival co-founder], I want to thank you, man. I came to this event two years ago and I sat in the crowd, Craig invited me, I had no idea what it was about, and I sat and I remember weeping. There were people from all walks of life, and the things they were doing, I thought to myself, will I ever do something that can really change something in a way that people could, I guess, recognize?
I had no idea that I’d be here, and I think it’s because I wasn’t trying to get on the stage, just like many of the people that were honored today. They weren’t trying to get on the stage. "I’m gonna make this movie so I get this hammer!" This is the result of that, I guess. How does it feel? I’m an artist man, that’s all. I’m just a dude who throws a camera around and tries to capture things, but the reality is that is a function of my activism. My art and what happens in this thing is a function of me really wanting to see change in the world, for real, not just talking about it, but being activated.
I challenge you all, whether it’s with this film or anything that you’ve heard today, allow it to get inside your heart and activate you to do something. I guarantee you, every single one of you has some sort of injustice inside of your ecosystem right now, whether it be racial injustice, sexual injustice, gender injustice. Whatever inequality is living in your environment, attack it. Have a disruptive disposition, as I see it, or a riotous disposition as Nat Turner had. Any injustice that lives in your community, it’s your job. If not, that may be the very injustice that takes hold of your children.
I thank you guys so much for this hammer. I’ve already cleared the space for it. I told you, Craig, up until this moment, this is my most proud moment, my most proud award because it speaks to everything I had to go through to have this film made.