"The Birth of a Nation" cast at TIFF 2016
When I was asked to attend the screening and press junket for Nate Parker’s “The Birth Of A Nation” at the Toronto International Film Festival, I was hesitant. A film which I had been so looking forward to seeing for the better part of a year, suddenly made my stomach turn. The thought of putting my ideas and opinions on the project and filmmaker out for the world to see was daunting. The details surrounding filmmaker and actor Nate Parker's rape trial in 1999, as well as his callous remarks in the past months regarding that time, were and are unsettling.
After reading those first interviews Parker gave to Variety and Deadline, I was sure I could not support “The Birth Of A Nation”. Rape is a heinous crime, and his words then further instilled in me that he did not understand the horrifying damage that was inflicted on the now deceased victim. (Though Parker maintains his innocence and was acquitted, it's clear that he was not given verbal consent.) I also felt that if I saw the film, I would be contributing to a society that continues to validate rape culture, victim blaming and misogyny. Then I was asked to attend TIFF.
Prior to attending, I read the interview Parker gave with EBONY’s Britni Danielle where he apologized for his self-centered comments and has vowed to continue to learn and educate himself. I also read his co-star Gabrielle Union's (who herself is a rape survivor) LA Times op-ed on Parker and “Birth”.
In the end, I decided to attend the screening and press junket. As a woman, I feel like what the film has sparked outside of its actual narrative, are vital conversations about rape, consent, sexual violence and the way in which we handle and discuss all of these things. These are desperately important conversations. Men especially need to continue to educate themselves and ask hard questions about their own masculinity and about consent. Too often the burden has fallen on women to protect ourselves from male predators. Moreover, as a Black woman, Nat Turner’s story is endlessly important to not only the Black American community but also to American citizens as a whole.
I do not know if Nate Parker should be forgiven, that is not for me to say; he most certainly should not be excused for his actions then nor his initial response now. And yet for me, Parker’s personal actions then and now do not negate the importance of this film. Whether you decide to see this film or not, is a decision only you can make, just as I had to make the choice for myself. However, just as Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass and so many other of our Black leaders are important, Nat Turner's voice should not and cannot be silenced.
Sexism, sexual violence, hyper-masculinity, misogyny, and racism all deserve platforms because they exist simultaneously and they often intersect. “The Birth Of A Nation's” narrative, perhaps more than anything else in pop culture right now, proves that. At the very least, we MUST continue to talk about these very difficult topics. I will note that in the TIFF Press Junket, Parker was asked directly by a reporter from The New York Times, about why he has not apologized to the victim and her family, Parker declined to answer her question and instead focused the conversation back on the film itself. Journalists are supposed to ask difficult questions, and this was certainly one that I felt warranted a response. However, as the question had been addressed previously, it was unsurprising when Parker chose to ignore it. Furthermore, the manner in which the journalist blurted out the question could have contributed to why Parker chose not to respond. But however these questions are presented, I feel that it is imperative that these types of questions don't get pushed aside. To do so would only continue to perpetuate the horrific rape culture that continues to thrive in society.
“The Birth Of A Nation” is a stunning cinematic work, not just about Nat Turner’s revolution but about the history of our nation, one that bleeds into who we are, today and the circumstances in which we find ourselves. At TIFF the film received a six-minute standing ovation once the credits rolled and the majority of the cast including, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Gabrielle Union, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Nate Parker were on hand to discuss the making of the film as well as the controversy surrounding it. This is what they had to say.
Was this the first story you wanted to tell as a director, and if so, why?
Nate Parker: I’ve always wanted to be a director, but I didn’t always have the guts. I didn’t go to film school so I started with seven short films, and then this story came along. Initially, I thought I might find a director, and I was talking to one of my agents about all the things I’d hoped a director would do, and he said, “Why don’t you do it?” I just wanted to make sure that I did it right, and would do it justice. So it became extremely important to surround myself with people who could support me because I didn’t have the experience.
What was it about the Nat Turner story that spoke to you?
NP: Well, it was really the fact that he was a hero that I’d never heard of growing up 43 miles east of Southampton County. In school, I learned about so many of our founding fathers whether it be Thomas Jefferson or Eli Whitney. The idea that there was a Black person that resisted was like an oxymoron. So, I decided when I became an artist that if there was any story that I was going to portray, it was going to be Nat Turner’s.
The title of the film, “The Birth Of A Nation” is obviously so visceral. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 of the same name was essentially a love letter to the Ku Klux Klan. Why did you choose to reclaim that title?
NP: I saw the film “The Birth Of A Nation” years ago, and it was devastating. It was so clear to me that the film had a massive impact on America, so when I decided to reclaim the title, it was about, what is happening in Hollywood currently. So often we talk about the lack of diversity, but we don’t realize that that comes from somewhere. Griffith’s “The Birth Of A Nation” was designed to disenfranchise people of color and to inspire white America to embrace white supremacy as a form of self-preservation. During that time, 1915, the Klan had ties in the White House through Griffith and Woodrow Wilson. So I wanted to reject white Supremacy and to be more inclusive overall. I also wanted to aggressively attack disenfranchisement, which is why this film is also involved with voter registration. It’s so important to me that when kids Google this; they have another option outside of someone who sought so desperately to destroy us. I think that we are still reeling from his intentions. Even now, if you look up “Greatest Films Ever Made”, Griffith’s film is on so many lists.
Aja, there is very little history written about Cherry (Nat Turner’s wife). What were you able to find? How did that impact how you were able to play her?
Aja Naomi King: As I was doing research on Cherry Turner, I knew I needed something; some tangible piece of something that told me this was a woman who walked this earth. I found an essay that used an excerpt from a newspaper article back in 1831. It was a letter from a General and in that letter, it said, “I got Nat Turner’s papers off his wife Cherry by the lash.” That was so powerful because it immediately spoke volumes about her character and who she was as a person. She could have died in that moment, but she chose to hold on to the papers, which speaks to her loyalty and her love. It just really grounded me inside of who this character was. There was immense pressure there. I didn’t want her to be an idea of a slave, that's why I love all of the scenes where you don’t just see her as this strong Black woman. That is the idea that we’ve all been forced to embody. Yes, we are strong, but it’s not like we don’t have feelings. We’re still human, we’re still hurt and we’re still afraid. And we get our strength in the face of all of that. So, to have these scenes where she could be still or quiet, she could fall in love, because we are human beings and we are more than just one thing.
Aunjanue, your character Nancy is essential to the group of women Nat Turner needs surrounding him in order to survive. Can you talk about the importance of these women in the film?
Aunjanue Ellis: As a woman, as someone who believes strongly in social justice for everybody, and who is also an actor, it is very frustrating to me when we have narratives that are so myopic; that exclude voices of women. If you look at the cannon of American heroism as it is portrayed in American cinema, you would think that women didn’t exist. What I think makes “The Birth Of A Nation” unique is that it rejects that fallacy. Nat’s mother, his grandmother, his wife, his friends, they compelled him, and they were a crucial part of that revolution that Nat Turner staged. Personally, I hope that this sets us on a stage to correct that erasure of women in these narratives, because we’re crucial, and it’s always us on the frontlines of these battles even when we don’t carry guns. When you really think about it, women have been so instrumental in so many ways for change in this country. We don’t necessarily carry the guns, but it wouldn’t have happened if we weren’t there. Dorothy Height organized the whole March On Washington but she didn’t’ say anything; she introduced somebody! We are the bones for it all at all times. Men come to talk, and women come to work; we get it done. To think otherwise is just dishonest; it’s just not true.
How can “The Birth Of A Nation” help us facilitate conversations about racial tension that we are living with now?
Coleman Domingo: We are here examining a stain in our history, and it’s something that we carry around with shame. Until we continue to confront our history, there will be no peace. There is no peace in the streets right now, there is blood on the streets and it’s on everyone’s hands because we aren’t facing our truth. We aren’t like Germany who has acknowledged the Holocaust and says, “Never again.” I think that is the source and why we are having so much racial tension because we have put Band-Aids on it. “The Birth Of A Nation” is a gigantic tool that can help us examine who we are. People are always saying, “Oh, not another slave movie.” But, I’m like how many are you counting because I can’t count that many. There are so many stories that haven’t been told, and we have to know this knowledge in order to move forward.
Gabrielle, your character does not speak and is only on screen for a very short amount of time. Whose choice was that, and why did you decide to take this on?
Gabrielle Union: I’ve always said when they did the Nat Tuner story, I just wanted to be a part of telling this story of Black revolution and Black resistance. So, I was trying to figure out how I would fit. I talked to Nate, and we decided that Esther would fit, not only because of how the character spoke to me but also, because I was filming “Being Mary Jane” at the same time. Esther was written with lines, but we made the decision not to have lines because I thought it was more powerful and that she would be more symbolic when it came to the voicelessness and powerlessness that sexual violence leaves us with. I thought that would be more important because it’s a weapon of mass destruction used to destroy that psyche and the soul.
Unfortunately, “The Birth Of A Nation” is now shrouded in controversy, because of Nate’s personal story. What do you think about people judging the scene prior to seeing it?
NP: I will just say that I’ve addressed it, and I will address it more. However, the reality is, there is no one person that makes a film. We had over four hundred people involved in this project. We worked for almost fifteen weeks; people were away from their families and so forth. I am just one person. In fact, there were many ideas that made it to the screen that weren’t my own. That is in addition to the legacy of Nat Turner, which has healing powers. I think it can progress us all, and inspire conversations that we want to have. I do think the legacy of Nat Turner, and what he sacrificed as an American hero is important to all of us. I want everyone who has sweated, bled and cried for this film, to get the opportunity to get any reward that will come to them for their work. There are so many people that just kept going above and beyond.
Penelope Ann Miller: I would say that this is not the Nate Parker story, this is the Nat Turner story, and I would say that most people don’t know the Nat Turner story, I didn’t know the Nat Turner story. Also as Aunjanue so beautifully and eloquently stated, there are so many powerful women in this story who uplift and who are catalysts that emboldened Nat Turner. There is a powerful story about women’s rights in this film, and I think it would be a shame if people didn’t see this story, and were not able to form their own personal opinion.
GU: I’ve always said from the very beginning that we’re not creating a movie. We’re creating a movement. So this movement is not single-focused. Yes, we are addressing racial inequity; yes we are actively addressing and pushing back against oppression, but that movement is inclusive. That movement includes people who have fought back against sexual violence or any issue that you have that is addressing any oppressive system or any type of inequity. It’s going to be a lot of uncomfortable, awkward, heated conversations but that’s the only way that we can hope to have evolution and hope to have behavioral shifts which is what Nat Turner was all about. Nat Turner was rooted in a place of faith that helped to subjugate and oppress his people. He was a part of that, he was rooted in that faith that kept him and his brothers and sisters in bondage. But, once he knew better he did better. That’s what he was trying to inspire in all of us so that we can have behavior shifts and shifts in our thinking. We implore you to join us; we don’t have to have a bunch of different movements to create a massive change. If you were confused why Ryan Lochte was called a child and then rewarded with a “Dancing With the Stars” spot but you’re wondering why Tamir Rice was never referred to as a child and was then murdered within seconds for acting like a child, this film is for you as well. If you’re a decent human being who wants to take part in a conversation about the things that bug the crap out of you, this movie is for you as well, and I hope you don’t sit it out.
AE: Since we have been in this country, art has been essential to the survival of African Americans particularly. There is the art, and there is the artist, and they are two different things. I’m from Mississippi, where they explicitly take out stories about Nat Turner, they explicitly call slaves “workers”, they do this explicitly because they don’t want us to know who we are. This is a rebellion against that. This movie is a rebellion against that suppression that exists in schools to this day that wants to keep African Americans believing that they are subservient. This movie is a rebellion against that. So what I would say to everyone who says, “I’m gonna stay home”, I would say to them whatever issue you have, whatever apprehension you have, bring it with you to the theater. If you have a problem or an issue, and you are right to have all of that, your disdain or your disfavor bring that and let us have that.
GU: I’ve never heard anyone say, “There are too many Holocaust movies” because there can’t ever be too many Holocaust movies. All over Germany, there are monuments that say, “Never, Forget” and “Never Again”. So in my opinion, there can never be enough stories about slavery, about inequality about oppression, because less we forget because we keep forgetting. With each hashtag, we have forgotten about the last hashtag.
ANK: It’s also image and identity. The images that have always been before us about slavery have been those of subservience and resilience, but never resistant, never rebellious. We never get to see in this period of time a Black man being his own hero. That to me is an essential thing about this story; it’s a sense of pride in our own identity. We were worriers.
GU: There is nothing more American than resistance, that’s what our country is built on. We have to reexamine who we define as a patriot, and who we define as a “real” American. There is a reason why Nat Turner’s name was erased from the history books. There is also a reason why they’re trying to erase Colin Kaepernick and Brandon Marshall and Megan Rapinoe and everyone else who has opted to take a knee, not to be in opposition to the police or the military, but to draw attention to oppression.
CD: The funny thing is I know I have people are thinking about and I would say I understand their trepidation. All I know is out of respect for everyone, I don’t know. He was acquitted of seventeen years ago. There are facts. Yes, you can read the documents and make your opinion about whatever you want. That is such sensitive material… but that’s not up for me to judge that. All I know is that we made an incredible film. Can you separate the art from the artist? I think that we have many times. If we know something about a person, does that discount all the other work of who you are, their whole body of work? I don’t know. I respect you if you feel like, “I can’t do it.” But, I also implore you to see the film because “The Birth Of A Nation” is so much more than Nate Parker.
Why do you think Black people push back against slave movies?
AE: I get it. It’s sort of like folks not wanting to see the video of Philando Castile. I didn’t want to watch it, I just could not see that man die on camera. So I get that, some of it is, “I cannot see a Black body brutalized over and over again.” I totally understand that. But, what I feel is unacceptable about that, is that when we say we don’t want to see stories about people who were enslaved, is that we are stripping those people of their humanity, again. And their power and their voice! I wrote a letter recently to the podcast The Read because they were saying that they were not going to see this movie because of the situation and they also said, “I don’t want to see another slave movie.” First, there is no such thing as a slave movie. What I said was, "Imagine that you’re from Virginia or wherever you’re from and your great-great-grandmamma was thinking not for a better life for herself, because she knew it wasn’t going to happen, but thinking of a better life for her posterity. She’s thinking that one day, my grand-children or my great-grandchildren are not going to look down at shackles on their feet." Did she ever believe that her story would be boring to her children?! That her story wouldn’t be worth telling?! We have let that woman down if we don’t want to see that. These movies have to happen because those voices have to be heard.
CD: And when have you seen it where we actually tell our story? We’re never at the helm of telling our own stories in the way we want to tell them, for us, by us. And that’s a shame. So, I really praise Nate for doing what he did. How he got the money to tell this story the way he did is a feat on its on. There were millions of people and hundreds of years of this institution!! I want more, I want love stories. I want stories about the female experience. I want to hear about gays and lesbians because they were there too. It is our responsibility, no one is going to include us in the history books so we have to make it possible.
Gabrielle, your candor about your own experience with sexual violence and your op-ed, is very rare for an actress in Hollywood. What has the response been like for you?
GU: Every time I speak about this there is a reaction. Whether it be at the airport when someone slides a paper under the stall and says “Me too and thank you”, that happens all the time. I’ve been talking about this for over twenty-years. When I was nineteen laying on the floor after being raped at gunpoint at a Payless shoe store, I decided never again. I was going to use my celebrity and my platform to talk about the horrors of sexual violence and what it does to your soul and your psyche, your sanity, your family and your relationships. It’s this acknowledgment that we are real and we do exist among you. It’s so important for people to see that you are not broken, and you are not seen as damaged, or less than or forsaken. I needed people to see that there is hope, there is always a community that will love you and that is about ninety-five percent of what I have received. Five percent feel that I threw Nate under the bus, and five percent feel that I am a rape apologist. I strongly encourage those two five percents to talk to one another. Every time I talk about sexual violence, I want to puke. There has never been a time in the last twenty-three years where I have not wanted to vomit. But, my personal discomfort is nothing compared to being a voice for people who feel absolutely powerless and voiceless. We all want a lot of things, but the only thing we can control is ourselves. I will say to anyone who has ever been in my position that you are not broken, you are not alone, you have a tremendous amount of support whether you speak up or you choose to keep your pain personal. You are real, you are valid and you are loved and worthwhile.
How do you expect people to react to this film?
AE: I don’t know how people are going to react to this film. I can tell you how I reacted. I can tell you about the audiences that I’ve been apart of, the reaction has been overwhelming. I think people come in one way and leave another way. It does something to you. You are affected by it in a way that you cannot control. I think there is a desire for these movies. I think there will be more.
CD: I just feel an enormous sense of humility because we knew we were creating something impactful. We’re all activists, really incited a group of activists and that’s why we are here as a united front in many ways. We are marching and it’s not without its complication and things that happened in people’s personal lives. But, for me it’s like I don’t know, that’s something that has happened and people are dealing with it and out of respect, I have no comment. All I know is that we made an amazing film that I am proud of.
“The Birth Of A Nation” heads to theaters Friday, October 7th.
Watch the trailer below:
Aramide A Tinubu has her Master’s in Film Studies from Columbia University. She wrote her thesis on Black Girlhood and Parental Loss in Contemporary Black American Cinema. She’s a cinephile, bookworm, blogger, and NYU + Columbia University alum. You can read her blog at: www.chocolategirlinthecity.com or tweet her @midnightrami