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The Nate Parker Interview: What’s Next for ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Two weeks ago, Nate Parker was a different man — on the verge of making it on Hollywood’s A-list with his American period drama “The Birth of a Nation.” He strolled into a restaurant in Sherman Oaks, Calif., with his 6-year-old daughter in tow. “My wife just had a baby, so I’m taking the burden off her,” he told Variety about his fatherly duties. He talked about how his oldest of five daughters is gearing up for her freshman year in college, and how he recently surprised her with a visit to New York to see “Hamilton.” And he seemed most proud of the legacy he was leaving for his children as the director, star, producer and writer of “The Birth of a Nation,” the Sundance Film Festival darling about the slave revolt of 1831 led by Nat Turner, which sold for a record-shattering $17.5 million to Fox Searchlight.

But since then, all hell has broken loose. Parker spoke in this interview for the first time in years about a dark incident from his past that’s come to define him. In 1999, as an undergraduate at Penn State University, he and his roommate Jean Celestin (the co-writer of “The Birth of a Nation”) were charged with raping an 18-year-old student. Although Parker was acquitted in a 2001 trial, details from the case generated a media firestorm, and the blogosphere turned on him with calls to boycott “The Birth of a Nation.” The situation heightened when Variety uncovered that the victim had committed suicide at 30 in 2012, a development that caught Fox Searchlight and Parker off guard. (Both declined requests for a follow-up interview.)

Now, some potential ticket buyers have already sworn off his movie months before its October debut in theaters. “You collaborated on a rape 17 years ago, and now you pull him in to make this film together,” says Kamilah Willingham, 30, one of the campus-assault survivors featured in the documentary “The Hunting Ground.” “I’m trying to picture a way this could turn out in which the film can still be celebrated. I can’t.”

Parker is still scheduled to appear at the Toronto Film Festival, but a source in communication with him says that he’s in a low place. He vacillates between thinking the case is resurfacing now after 17 years because of a Hollywood conspiracy against him or just bad luck. He’s disappointed over the backlash on social media and that the African-American online community hasn’t been more supportive. And he’s even mad at himself, for underestimating the public’s interest in a court case that happened so long ago.

“Seventeen years ago, I experienced a very painful moment in my life,” Parker told Variety over a two-hour conversation. “It resulted in it being litigated. I was cleared of it. That’s that. Seventeen years later, I’m a filmmaker. I have a family. I have five beautiful daughters. I have a lovely wife. I get it. The reality is, I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”

It’s not clear what Parker’s path forward is from here. He will have to navigate difficult waters, given that his statements about the film, as well as the movie itself (especially a fictional rape scene involving key characters), will be viewed under a different lens. “I say if you have injustice, this is your movie,” Parker said about “The Birth of a Nation,” a line that could be met with raised eyebrows. He wanted to use the movie to inspire a movement — he even recorded a PSA to run before the film — to talk about the wounds that slavery inflicted on generations of U.S. citizens. “Americans suffers from post-traumatic stress syndrome from a time that we refuse to address,” Parker said. “Healing only comes from honest confrontation. Any psychologist will tell you that.”

““The reality is, I can’t relive 17 years ago. All I can do is be the best man I can be now.”

At Sundance, Parker said that Celestin was the first person he ever told about his idea for “The Birth of a Nation.” But before Variety asked him about the trial, he tried to downplay his old roommate’s role in the film, despite a credit for Celestin as the story’s co-writer. “I wrote the screenplay by myself,” Parker said, adding that no one helped him on the first of 40 drafts he’s worked on since 2007. When pressed about Celestin’s contributions, Parker said obliquely: “I just did a lot of research. I hired a lot of people. I had researchers. I had all kinds of people. I just wanted people to feel whole.”

“The Birth of a Nation” was supposed to finally end two years of #OscarsSoWhite, but the movie might cause further ripples within the Motion Picture Academy. Some prominent members of black Hollywood are standing with Parker, but they haven’t backed him publicly yet. “I don’t like the timing of this,” says one well-known black director, who asked not to be named. “I’m not defending his actions, but something is wrong about the way it went down.” Another black director who knows Parker, but also requested anonymity, said: “It worries me that a film and a guy with so much promise gets cut down a month before his masterpiece gets released. The last two years have proven how much our stories matter to this industry, and this seems like a way to muffle a very important piece of work.”

Here’s how Parker talked about “The Birth of a Nation” in his own words.

How did you get the idea to use the name from D.W. Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” for your title?

It was called “The Birth of a Nation” before I even put in the paper. I never went to film school. I was very insecure approaching the idea of directing a feature film. I told myself I would not move until I felt I was moving in power rather than moving in desperation to make a movie. When you ask anyone, “What is the greatest achievement in cinematic history?,” they are unfortunately going to point to Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a film that is rife in so much racism, smothered in so much blood, yet has a perfect score on so many platforms that represent film critique. I thought: “Wow. What if I took this and put a spotlight on it. I tied a rope to it, and lead a rope to a new film that could best represent the growth we had since that film?” So I decided to take on Griffith and Woodrow Wilson, who screened the film in the White House.

When did you start writing it?
I would say 2007. It was around the release of “The Great Debaters.” I finished my first draft relatively quickly — maybe a year. Some people gave very fearful notes. I remember meeting a director I really respect. He said, “I like the script, but I don’t love it. One thing that would make me love it — you need more good white people.” Well, I’m not making a script about good black people and bad white people. I’m making a script about systematic oppression.

Did you write the part of Nat Turner for yourself?
I always wrote it for myself. I didn’t always know I was going to direct.

Who else did you offer it to?
I wanted Denzel [Washington]. It would have been his project period. But I had a big list of demands. You don’t give a director demands! And I sat with Ryan Coogler and David Lowery. It was more about me getting advice. If they said, “I will do it,” I would have given it to them. Then I started toying with the idea of directing it. I became obsessed with it.

Did you get advice from other directors too?

I reached out to Edward Zwick. We went through, frame by frame, “Defiance” and “Glory” — the battle scenes. He was like, “This is what I did, and what I would have done differently.” It was an education few people get. I also reached out to Mel Gibson. Maybe three months later, I get a phone call — “Nate, it’s Mel.” “Mel who?” I took maybe 30 pages of notes. His best advice was don’t work on Sunday. He said: “You need a day off if you’re going to direct yourself. I did this for seven months on ‘Braveheart.’ You need time for recovery and reflection — just sitting, drinking tea.” That’s exactly what I did. On Sunday, I would go into a dark room and drink tea.

How did you first hear about Nat Turner?

He became my hero in college. I never heard about him until I went to college. I was not a good writer yet. I wrote a number of scripts. Some were OK. Some were not very good at all.

What were they about?

They were all over the place. My very first script was about a spray-painting crew during the transition in the ’70s when gangs were about graffiti and dancing and then became about criminal activity. I wrote a script about two female police officers. I got the idea, because I lived in this shabby, humble apartment complex. I remember driving home one day. These two women were detaining a car full of men. Two women that were smaller than my wife. I was instantly terrified for them.

Did you write the role of Turner for yourself because there weren’t enough good roles for you in Hollywood?

I felt that there was a massive vacuum. I do believe as a person of color, the disparities are great. A lot of the roles that were sent to me were “Gangbanger No. 1.” And when a role did come up that I felt carried and represented my community in the best ways, I wasn’t the only one that knew it existed. So I’d have to compete.

What’s a role you really wanted that you didn’t get?
“Friday Night Lights.” I and every single black man on Earth seemed to audition for it. It went to my close friend Derek Luke. In this town, as a man of color, you don’t have material. That’s not because of a lack of talent. I do believe it is a lack of cultivation. It is a lack of courage on the part of many in power, because it is a business. There are models that suggest there is a risk associated with aligning young men and women of color with a bigger budget, more high-profile opportunities.

After you finished the script, did you ever take “The Birth of a Nation” to a studio?
I didn’t. As the script got better, I was with a big agency. I was told that a studio is not going to make this film. It’s a period film. It’s a drama. It’s an African-American lead. It’s dealing with American injury. And most films about people of color don’t sell foreign. This is what I was told to my face.

The film’s budget is around $8 million. How many investors did you end up getting?
Maybe 20. It was a lot, from all over. [NBA players] Tony Parker and Michael Finley put in money. I had an orthopedic surgeon put in money. The smallest amount given was $75,000.

How hard was it to raise that money?

It was about getting people to buy in from the standpoint of legacy. I would sit down with the money people — “Hey, you have money. Your kids know that. But when it’s all said and done, and they are pointing to that oil painting, what are they going to be able to say?” That got me far. I spent all my own money. I put in $100,000. I started a production company. I was at church, praying with my pastor. I considered getting a job because I had gone broke. It got to the point where I almost got a job at Wal-Mart. I could work the night shift. But rather than going and taking a TV show, I felt I had to stay on this path. The darkest part of the journey is when things start to come together. I was the guy trying to do this noble thing. It wasn’t like I was trying to do a Marvel film.

What was the worst day in getting the film ready?

On Thanksgiving before we had it made, I lost $3 million [from an investor]. I’m in my bedroom, getting this call, as my family is in the living room, giving thanks. I cried. I was devastated. I remember my mother rubbing my back. It was the only time in the whole process I began to doubt. I began to think I bit off a little more than I can chew.

How has “The Birth of a Nation” changed since Sundance?

I probably cut 20 seconds. I’m a perfectionist to a fault. I could hardly watch the movie at Sundance. Even until the credits rolled, I knew the imperfections that were thorns in my side.

Why did you turn down the offer from Netflix? 
I had such respect for Ted [Sarandos]. But to be honest, you were in the theater. I wanted it to be what the film wanted it to be. It was like a rhythmic wave of emotion that would not stop. You could feel it hitting the people — I just wanted that for the world. We’re talking about global change. You don’t choose who you sit next to in a theater. You sit in a theater and there’s an energy that happens.

Are you going to continue to act or direct?

I want to do both. I have a five-year plan. I’m closing on a couple things. Let’s just say that I plan to act next, direct, prep myself, direct again, and then act for a while. If you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I’m a planner.

What makes “Birth of a Nation” so timely now?
What I think we’re ready for is an unapologetic conversation about race, that’s what this film encompasses. Just by virtue of being ready for the conversation, I think we’re ready for Nat Turner. One of the things I’m asking people at every screening, I made a video go in front of the theater: “When you watch this film — go have a conversation with someone.”

For you, this movie is more than just a movie.
I don’t want this to be a film. I want it to be a movement. I don’t want it to be a moment in time. I want a launch pad for conversation around how we can deal with our trauma collectively. Then we can create a cultural shift.

How will that happen?
One word: healing.

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