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Still from Birth of a Nation with Nate Parker as Nat Turner
Why Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation film is inspiring
Still from Birth of a Nation with Nate Parker as Nat Turner

Still from Birth of a Nation – 2016 dir. Nate Parker

Some Black people feel there are too many movies made about the transatlantic slave trade. I disagree. I think there are not enough. We need more female-led slavery stories. We need more QPOC-led slavery stories. We need more slavery stories from the Caribbean, South America and West Africa. We haven’t begun to scratch the surface of slavery movies.

Black people need to keep talking about slavery. We don’t discuss the transatlantic slave trade enough because I think as Black people, like all people who have been abused, we feel complicit in the abuse, and blame ourselves for our “weakness” or “shame”. So we squash discussions on slavery by saying it is “something we need to get over” or “we should forget”.

We tell ourselves we need to move on from it,  even though we see the damage that slavery has done to all African descent people in the USA, Caribbean and South America and the legacy of racism in contemporary Western cultures. Joy Degruy Leary has defined this as Post Traumatic Slavery Syndrome. We look on this part of our history and feel humiliated, and some would prefer to fast rewind past the 400 years of horror, to a time when we were “Kings and Queens”. This comforting fantasy which often fails to move beyond Egypt, treats Africa as a country. Africa is a huge continent, with diverse cultures, landscapes and spiritual practices – it is complex with light and shade.

I know sometimes it is almost impossible to hold in our imaginings, whole nations of people being ripped from our countries of origin, tortured, degraded and made to provide unpaid labour to build structures and institutions which excluded us then, and now. Our free labour, with that of white working class people in the UK, and those colonised in India and South East Asia helped build the modern capitalist system. Dr Eric Williams in his book Capitalism and Slavery written in 1944 clearly showed the links like many books since,  between capitalism and slavery.

But we survived and also rebelled. We ran away, like my ancestors did in Jamaica to form Maroon colonies who fought off and defeated the British army.  Or the house and field slaves who united to fight to liberate themselves from slavery.

Nate Parker is a also a revolutionary. He rebelled against the orthodox way to make a film in a system where it is challenging to make any film, let alone a film with a mostly Black cast, director and Black-led story about a slave revolutionary –  Nat Turner. The story of how he made the film has been documented on the internet. But certain things stand out to me as an African descent filmmaker in how to use Blackness as art and revolution.

He flipped the bird the KKK film Birth of a Nation directed by DW Griffiths in 1915
Nate Parker took a piece of white supremacist culture, as our enslaved ancestors did before us, and turned it into something beautiful and life enhancing for everyone. His film’s name is taken from Birth of A Nation, the silent film made by DW Griffiths. Anyone who has studied film is told this is THE film which changed the face of narrative film, by it’s use of narrative tension and new style camera shots. We may not have been taught that it acted like an effective Ku Klux Klan recruitment tool with it’s racist propaganda, and powerful stereotyping of black men as animalistic sexual predators and it’s humiliating use of blackface. When you Google Birth of a Nation, what comes up Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation about slave revolt. So thank you Nate Parker for subverting DW Griffith!  You finished what Drusilla Dunjee Houston started in the early 20th Century with “Spirit of the South: The Maddened Mob”

Nate Parker didn’t do as he was told – he broke the rules
In my Radical Film Manifesto I tell people if we want to be filmmakers we need to take risks. Which means not being afraid to be rejected. Nate Parker took it upon himself to leave acting full-time, to finance, produce, write, direct AND star in this film about a slave revolt. This is considered a “vanity project” in the film and entertainment industry, and many actors are warned off of doing films this way. Nate Parker didn’t follow the rules, he broke them!

Nate Parker put his own money in the film and took a risk
Nate Parker put $100,000 of his own money into the Birth of Nation. He believed in himself, the story and the film. Any filmmaker who works outside of dominant structures, knows that to get anything done, they need passion and commitment. Nate Parker used his own money to scout locations and get a production designer on board. He showed by his actions, the project was a juggernaut and was going to happen – by any means necessary. Nate Parker showed us you cannot wait for things to happen. I learn from his efforts in order to get a feature film made that you have a burning passion for, it is your responsibility as the filmmaker to get it done.

Nate Parker didn’t sell himself to the highest bidder
When Birth of a Nation screened at Sundance the vibe was hot! People were cheering and giving the film a standing ovation even BEFORE one frame was shown. Fox Searchlight bought Birth of a Nation for a record $17.5 million. But it wasn’t the highest bid. Netflix offered $20 million. Parker chose Searchlight because  – “Searchlight was open to hearing all his ideas about how the film should be released, including his hope for it to be shown in high schools and colleges around the country”,  according to this report in the Hollywood Reporter on how the negotiations for the sale of Birth of a Nation went down.

Birth of a Nation has won The Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Prize at Sundance Film Festival 2016

Nate Parker has inspired me to think of creative ways to make my future films. Thank you Nate Parker for the inspiration.

 

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