This story first appeared in the Jan. 29 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.
A few days after actor Nate Parker finished shooting the R&B romance Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he met with his agents and told them he would not be acting again — not until he could play American revolutionary Nat Turner.
“I was willing to stick to that — and if it was my lot to never act again, so be it,” says Parker, who didn’t work for nearly two years, instead spending every minute — and nearly every dime — trying to get his passion project made.
The result is The Birth of a Nation, premiering in Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic Competition. Parker, 36, wrote, produced, directed and stars in the drama, playing Turner, a slave who led an 1831 rebellion in Southampton County, Va. He has been writing the script for his version of Turner’s story for seven years but has been carrying the story around with him for much longer.
“Growing up as a black man in the South, there was such a shortage of heroism in respect to the history that I was taught,” says Parker, who was a high school wrestling state champion and All-American at the University of Oklahoma. Parker didn’t even learn about Turner’s story (despite growing up in Virginia) until he took African-American studies classes in college. “Imagine my dismay,” he says, “in learning that one of the greatest men to walk the soil in this country was a man who grew up and lived and breathed and fought less than 100 miles from where I grew up.”
After graduating from college with a degree in computer programming, Parker moved to Los Angeles to pursue acting. Despite notable work in such films as The Great Debaters (2007), The Secret Life of Bees (2008) and Red Tails (2012), he grew frustrated with many of the roles that came his way. “So few of them had integrity,” he says. “As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do.”
Parker, who had written and directed a couple of short films, became determined to write for himself, and, through a fellowship with the Sundance Lab, was connected with mentors such as Walk the Line writer-director James Mangold to help him hone the story he wanted Hollywood to hear. But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn’t work: Movies with black leads don’t play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn’t work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners.
From left: Hammer, Parker and Jayson Warner Smith face the ‘Nation.’
But Parker was determined, and he began looking for financing. He invested $100,000 of his own money to hire a production designer and fund a location scout in Savannah, Ga. He flew around the country — everywhere from New York to West Palm Beach, Fla., to Los Angeles — to meet with anyone who might be interested in investing. It was those meetings with Parker, says producer Jason Michael Berman of Mandalay Pictures, that won over even the most doubtful financier. “Anytime Nate got on the phone with anybody or got in the room with anyone, they were completely intrigued by him,” says Berman. “The subject matter was tough — everybody knew that — but when they met Nate Parker, his drive, his passion and his determination were what sold them.”
The first investors to come on board were retired NBA player Michael Finley, who helped finance Lee Daniels’ The Butler, and San Antonio Spurs star Tony Parker. From there, thanks to the hustle of Berman and fellow producer Kevin Turen of Phantom Four, the investors grew to 11 groups. With 60 percent of the financing within reach, Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios came on as a producer to lock in the remaining funds for the $10 million film.
“What I thought was going to be a 10-minute meeting with Nate out of courtesy for an agent turned into four hours that were, candidly, filled with all sorts of emotion,” says Gilbert. “There was no way I couldn’t make this movie.”
The film was shot over 27 days in Georgia in May. Dealing with such an emotionally bleak time in American history took its toll on the cast (which includes Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and How to Get Away With Murder‘s Aja Naomi King) and crew, but Parker, with skills sharpened from his days as an athlete and a volunteer wrestling coach for underserved kids, kept spirits high. “He knows how to get the best out of people — I think it’s that coach mentality,” says Turen, who worked with Parker on 2012’s Arbitrage. “I’ve never been on a set where the crew respected a person more. I think anybody would have done anything for Nate.”
And while Parker started writing The Birth of a Nation (which is using the title of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 KKK propaganda film in a very purposeful way) long before the stories of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown or Ferguson made worldwide news, the film’s Sundance premiere (WME is selling it at the fest) couldn’t be more timely.
“Resistance lives in the air in this current moment,” says Parker. “Anyone who sees this film should leave the theater and feel compelled to be a change factor with respect to relations that are taking place in this country. But also, they should be proud to be an American. This country was built on rebellion. So when we talk about American heroes, people that fought against an oppressive force, I think that it’s a no-brainer that Nat Turner exists in that conversation.”