Oscars 2017? Star-Turned-Director Nate Parker on How His Bold Movie About Slavery 'Birth of a Nation' Became a 'Miracle' Success

Nate Parker is breaking big with his rapturously received epic The Birth of a Nation, which swept the top prizes at Sundance

Photo: Jahi Chikwendiu

Maybe he thrilled you as the brilliant Henry Lowe in 2007’s The Great Debaters, or commanded your attention as Jimmy Grant, the emotional center of 2012’s Arbitrage. Or, you might’ve lusted after him as Kaz, the police officer steaming up the screen with Gugu Mbatha-Raw in Beyond the Lights.

Chances are, you know Nate Parker for his incredible onscreen presence. Wait till you hear what he’s been doing behind the scenes.

Parker, 36, just added a few ambitious new skills to his résumé as the star, writer and director of The Birth of a Nation, winner of the 2016 Sundance Film Festival’s audience and jury top prizes. Birth, which snatches its title from D.W. Griffith’s abjectly racist 1915 film, recounts the 1831 slave uprising of Nat Turner, an African-American preacher who convinced his fellow slaves to turn against their masters. Turner’s story has been a labor of love for Parker, who first became captivated by it as a student at the University of Oklahoma.

“In college, if someone [asked] me who my hero [was], the answer they’d get without hesitation was Nat Turner,” Parker tells PEOPLE. Parker felt the urgency “to research him and learn about him and try to find ways into his life that I could apply to my life, with respect to his disposition toward injustice, with respect to his ideology around righteousness and faith.”

Turner was an academic obsession that became a professional one, Parker says, even as he picked up roles in films like Red Tails and The Secret Life of Bees. “Far too often, as a black actor…you receive a hundred scripts in a year, and two of them you feel represent the experience of the black male with strength and power and integrity. And I felt the need to, instead of complaining about that, to find a way to change it with my art. So I started writing. I wrote several scripts, but Nat Turner and his life was one that I wanted to really delve into as a writer.”

Parker spent seven years honing his script, finally sending it to the Sundance Institute, which paired him with other filmmakers who helped him fine-tune the story. He hired Armie Hammer, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union for his cast, then shot the film in speedy 27 days in Savannah, Georgia. It’s an amazing achievement for a first-time filmmaker. After all, how did he even know he could direct?

“You know, it’s funny, I didn’t!” says Parker, laughing. “That’s the God’s honest truth. I never said I’m going to be a great director! I’m going to direct! But I am a high school coach. I coach wrestling in San Marino, California. If you can coach [teenagers], then surely you can inspire people to come to work, who are actually paid to do what they do.”

In addition to his directing, writing, acting and coaching gigs, Parker also happens to be a father to four daughters with his wife of nearly a decade, Sarah de Santo Parker. It’s a touching echo of the way he grew up – with four younger sisters.

“My father passed away when I was very young, so I was head of household for a very long time,” says Parker. “Whether it came to cooking food or having to braid hair to get kids out of the door for school, I’ve been one that has – with the help of my mother – has been a father figure for a lot of young ladies.”

With The Birth of a Nation, bought at Sundance by Fox Searchlight for a record $17.5 million, Parker may also soon be the inspiration for a lot of young filmmakers.

“This miracle that we’ve been able to attain is a win for Sundance,” says Parker. “It’s a win for independent films. It’s a win for independent filmmakers. It’s a win for Robert Redford and his vision. I dedicate this to them. I scream my gratitude!”

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