Nate Parker channeled his passion into ‘The Birth of a Nation’

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Nate Parker as Nat Turner in “The Birth of a Nation.” | Fox Searchlight Pictures

It took about eight years to bring “The Birth of a Nation” to fruition, but for writer, director and star Nate Parker, the process actually dated back to his childhood.

“It’s an interesting thing being an American, and having the pride and patriotism in this country. For example in school I remember so clearly us standing and putting our hand over our heart and reciting the Pledge of Allegiance. We’re taught to have such a desperate love for this country, and I’m OK with that.

“But growing up, I really didn’t learn what this country really was — and where it had come from. I wasn’t given a clear vision of what had happened to African-Americans up to that moment where I can truly celebrate the country and be OK with it.”

In school he was taught about George Washington, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson — people who had done heroic and courageous things but didn’t look like him. However, “learning about Nat Turner changed the narrative for me.”

“The Birth of a Nation” (opening Friday) is the feature directing debut for Parker, an accomplished actor known for “Red Tails” and “Beyond the Lights.” It won the top dramatic movie awards at the Sundance Film Festival in January and also brought fresh scrutiny of Parker’s past, including his 2001 acquittal on a rape charge. Parker declined to discuss the case in our interview.

The film recounts the true story of Turner, a very literate slave in the antebellum South, who was a preacher used by his financially strapped owner, Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer) to help subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing some terrible mistreatment of fellow slaves, Nat Turner has an epiphany and organizes a revolt in 1831 — hoping to achieve freedom for his people.

Upon learning about Turner’s violent revolt, Parker said he “felt more American in the sense that I felt I could take ownership of where we are today, as well. Many historians believe that the actions of Nat Turner precipitated the Civil War. So, I don’t have to give credit only to Abraham Lincoln. I can say that there were people who resisted, and that resistance included the Abolitionists and an entire conversation that led to this war that liberated our people. That gives me a sense of pride that I feel was robbed of me when I was a kid.”

For Parker, his goal with making the movie was to use the power of cinema and its ability to vividly showcase storytelling to share Nat Turner’s history with young people today, “so they don’t have to go through what I did, and wait so many years before learning of his story.”

It’s important to Parker to share the idea that “yes, slavery was a horrible thing, but there were people who looked like me, and fought for freedom. … It wasn’t simply something given to African-Americans by some well-intentioned white people.”

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