Parker, who wrote, starred and directed the film, talked about his inspiration for the script in a Q&A session following a screening at the Toronto International Film Festival.
“I didn’t learn about Nat Turner in high school. I grew up 42 miles east of where the rebellion happened and there’s not event a remnant of his exploits,” Parker, 36, said. “When I learned about him I felt like, ‘Man this is someone who should be celebrated along the line of the Patrick Henrys, the Jeffersons and our forefathers.’ ”
In 1831, Turner and a group of fellow slaves and free blacks in Virginia rebelled, escaping and killing dozens of slaveowners and their families. Turner was hanged after he was caught two months later.
“I was so inspired by his story that when I became an actor and decided I would start writing, I felt like this was a story that I felt historically speaking could really promote the kind of healing we need and the conversation around race.”
Costars Armie Hammer and Colman Domingo agreed, adding that they too hadn’t learned anything about Turner growing up.
Parker says Turner’s courageous actions impacted generations to come.
“I think he solidified his legacy the moment he raised the axe. That’s that form of resistance,” Parker said. “I think it’s so often in the act. When we think about resistance and we talk about subversive systems, we think, ‘Well we can’t do anything, no matter what I do it won’t work.’ But what we forget is that there’s a lineage and there are generations behind us.”
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“While it may not liberate us, or it may not solve the problem, it can plant a seed that can grow and generations down the line someone can take a story or a folk tale, do the research and make a movie about it and change the way that we think about resistance in respect to these types of systems.”
Birth of a Nation was considered a 2017 Oscars frontrunner when it first premiered at the Sundance Film Festival in February, in the middle of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy. It earned the audience and jury’s top prize, and Fox Searchlight purchased the film for a record-setting $17.5 million.
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But the conversation turned when news resurfaced about Parker’s involvement in a 1999 rape case as a student at Penn State University. Parker was acquitted in 2001, but the controversy was renewed due to the success of Birth of a Nation and after Variety learned that the woman involved had committed suicide in 2012 at age 30. Parker has said he was “filled with profound sorrow” when he learned about the woman’s death. “As a 36-year-old father of daughters and person of faith, I look back on that time as a teenager and can say without hesitation that I should have used more wisdom,” he posted on Facebook.
Parker and his cast were met with a standing ovation after the screening in Toronto Friday night.
In addition to Friday’s premiere, Parker will attend a press conference at the festival on Sunday, along with Hammer, Gabrielle Union and other costars.
Birth of a Nation opens in theaters Oct. 7.
• Reporting by JODI GUGLIELMI