Since the 2016 Oscar nominations were announced on Jan. 14, actors and filmmakers have voiced their disappointment at the lack of color within 2016's talent pool. Many have pegged the Academy's race problem on an absence of quality roles for non-white actors, coupled with the industry's failure to invest in projects by people of color. Which is one of the major reasons why Nate Parker — the director, writer, producer and star of The Birth of a Nation, scheduled to premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Jan. 25 — refused to take no for an answer.
In an interview with the Hollywood Reporter, published Wednesday, Parker explained why, in 2013, he walked away from his acting career to make a movie about Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion. Parker told the Hollywood Reporter he was dismayed by the caliber of roles offered him once he began his acting career.
"So few of [the parts I was being offered] had integrity," Parker told the Hollywood Reporter. "As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do."
In pitching the idea to the industry's influencers, however, he was repeatedly told that the project was a non-starter. According to the Reporter, those he approached for help repeatedly answered that the film was too bloody, too pricey, too risky without a big name to buoy it at the box office; that it wouldn't gain traction overseas with a black main character, and that it celebrated a man who murdered white people.
Hollywood's pattern of playing only to the interests of white moviegoers has been condemned by a growing number of celebrities, including Jada Pinkett Smith, producer Will Packer, George Clooney and, on Wednesday, Lupita Nyong'o. In an Instagram post, Nyong'o — who won the 2014 Oscar for her work in 12 Years a Slave — hit the implicit racism nail squarely on the head.
"I am disappointed by the lack of inclusion in this year's Academy Awards nominations," her post read. "It has me thinking about unconscious prejudice and what merits prestige in our culture....I stand with my peers who are calling for change in expanding the stories that are told and recognition of the people who tell them."
Expanding the narrative was another of Parker's reasons for remaining offscreen until he was given the green light to play Turner. Despite having grown up in the same state as Turner — Virginia, where Turner's slave rebellion took place — Parker didn't encounter this chapter of American history until he got to college. "Growing up as a black man in the South, there was such a shortage of heroism in respect to the history that I was taught," Parker told the Reporter.
The Birth of a Nation notably shares its name with a 1915 movie that exults the Klu Klux Klan; Parker's appropriation of the title flips that association on its head, introducing his audience to an often overlooked historical figure who, however violent his methods, fought back against a gross injustice.
"Anyone who sees this film should leave the theater and feel compelled to be a change factor with respect to relations that are taking place in this country," Parker said. "But also, they should be proud to be an American. This country was built on rebellion. So when we talk about American heroes, people that fought against an oppressive force, I think that it's a no-brainer that Nat Turner exists in that conversation."
Nat Turner's story challenges the typical slavery story line presented in American film. As Shannon M. Houston wrote for Paste, "Slave revolts are not the typical fodder for slave narratives in part because they show a side of enslaved blacks that we're not supposed to talk about: the vengeful, by-any-means-necessary side, wherein some blacks refused to wait for a white savior, or for their freedom to become legalized."
Turner's story is a part of history; in advance of its Park City premiere, it's Parker's willingness to tell it that has the industry many buzzing about a possible Grand Jury Prize win.
"[Parker] creates a very singular piece of history that most people don't know about and doesn't shy away from the complicated nature of that," John Cooper, director of Sundance, told Entertainment Weekly in December. "I think it's going to be one of the real conversation pieces of the festival."