In 1831, Nat Turner’s Rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia resulted in the highest death count of any slave rebellion in the history of the antebellum American South. Nat Turner, leader of the Southampton Insurrection, was an incredibly intelligent and religious slave that had learned reading and writing as a youth on the plantation. He had visions and preached God’s word to fellow slaves. The sermons led to a mutiny. The rebellion killed up to 70 whites, but the repercussions consisted of the execution of hundreds of slaves, many of them innocent. State legislatures were then passed prohibiting the education of slaves.
In a country with high racial tensions and a Hollywood that is whiter than country club brunch, promising writer and director Nate Parker tells the Nat Turner story. Nate Parker, perhaps unknowingly, is the perfect response to the #OscarsSoWhite anger that has spread faster than E.Coli in burritos.
The film is thoughtfully and provocatively titled ‘The Birth of a Nation,’ a response to the horribly racist 1915 film by D.W. Griffith by the same name. “Griffith’s film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation to solidify white supremacy,” said Parker. “I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents. That people can watch this film and be affected.”
In his first attempt at writing and directing, Parker, who also plays the lead role of Nat Turner, achieved historical success; Fox Searchlight bid $17.5 million for distribution rights at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah just a couple days ago, marking a Sundance record. Though Netflix outbid Fox, Parker made it a point that he wanted his film in theatres (a luxury Netflix cannot provide).
I’m sure you have heard of the outcry regarding the all-white field of Oscar acting nominees, for the second year in a row. Further, there are no films depicting black lives in the Best Picture category. This film, though following the trend of movies that depict slavery like “12 Years a Slave” and “Django Unchained,” will have the opportunity to break the trend of all white acting nominees. Nate Parker and Aja Naomi King both received “instant rapture” from critics for their roles, according to NYT reporter Brooks Barnes. Given Fox Searchlights incredible success with marketing lower budget and independent films, I would anticipate “The Birth of a Nation” to have success financially and in the subsequent Academy Awards.
My criticism of the system comes with the realization that I couldn’t name a successful movie that didn’t star a white male or female, unless the movie depicted a rough urban setting, had a plot that revolved around the historical institutions of oppression, or it was a comedy. I think the general consensus is that the there is a void that needs black, Hispanic, or Asian drama actors and actresses. Denzel Washington and Halle Berry cannot live forever.
Laurence Fishburne addressed the diversity in Hollywood in a recent interview with Jimmy Fallon. “It’s gotten better,” he said. “We still have a lot of work to do, but it’s gotten better.”
In the last 20 years, there have been four movies with a non-white actor in the star or supporting role: “Million Dollar Baby,” “Crash,” “Slumdog Millionaire,” and “12 Years a Slave.” “Slumdog Millionaire” exposed the poverty and living conditions in India, while “12 Years a Slave” obviously was a film of remembrance of the brutality of black oppression and the legacy that still exists. The other two films consisted of Don Cheadle and Morgan Freeman, two men that have long been the foundation of black drama actors. I just think there are roles for non-whites in film that could result in non-white acting nominations, but I do not think that non-whites are being considered for the opportunity. Thus, I do not blame The Academy for this disparity, I would blame Hollywood for keeping their mind closed to what it means to make a great movie, and what kinds of actors should fill those roles.
Fishburne, in the same interview, brought up what he is anticipating regarding the Academy Awards. “I just can’t wait to see how Chris Rock handles it as the host of the Oscars,” he said. “That’s what I’m looking forward to.” I echo that sentiment.