While spending my Saturday morning binge watching shows such as A Different World, Living Single, The Cosby Show and the animated series The Boondocks, I ponder on what constitutes a great actor; and more specifically, a great actor of African descent. When I think of an outstanding actor, thoughts of commitment, range, insight and personality come to mind. There are fans who become “Trend chasers”, finding attractiveness in the character, image, or financial status of an actor. On the other hand, there are those of us who are intrigued by an actor’s ethos and ultimately find value in his or her humanitarian feats away from the camera. With today’s disparaging circumstances within the African American community (gentrification, the deliberate white washing of damn near everything, police brutality etc.), there's a struggle for young, pro black, kinky haired brothas like myself to find actors who exhibit just as much commitment to their culture and community as they do on screen.
Enter Nate Parker
I was first introduced to this guy in 2007 in the inspiring biopic The Great Debaters where he starred as the supporting character to Denzel Washington. The film is set in 1935 Marshall, Texas and focuses on a Private HBCU, Wiley College, debate team led by Parker's character Henry Lowe. In the film, the team triumphs despite the odds of racism and oppression, to become national champions over the so-called prestigious Harvard University. I followed Parker’s career, as he starred in another influential biopic called Pride. This film captures the lead character, Terrance Howard, as a college educated, yet unemployed, ex-competitive swimmer. Set in the ghettos of Philadelphia, Parker, along with a group of teens are invited to Howard's rehabilitated rec center. Amid systems of white supremacy in the 1970s, the teens are later trained to become regional swim team champions.
Parker's resume includes such films as Red Tails, Blood Done Sign My Name, Red Hook Summer and Eden. Coming off the recent box office smash Beyond the Lights, it's safe to say that Nate Parker chooses his roles wisely, with historic and cultural awareness. I’ve spent a great deal of time viewing interviews of this man on CNN, MSNBC and FOX NEWS and it’s apparent that Nate Parker, as an Actor, Producer, Writer, Director, and Activist, has taken a stand against social injustices enacted upon people of African descent within “Amerikkka” and around the globe.
Seeds of Rebellion
In 1915 D.W. Griffith’s silent film Birth Of A Nation (Based off the book The Clansman), swept the box office and enraged white audiences nationwide. In fact, the film was so popular that President Woodrow Wilson had a private screening at the White House, and endorsed it by saying, "it is like writing history with lightning, and my only regret is that it is also terribly true."
Since then, depictions of black people in films has been one-dimensional, embarrassing and outright shameful. Movies such as Gone with the Wind, Goodbye Uncle Tom, Belle,Drum, Mandingo, Song of the South (Yes that mess was racist), Amistad and12 Years A Slave, have dominated the green screen and created a narrative of the non-resistant, complacent or dependent black person. There are those who attempt to use films like The Legend of Nigger Charley and Django for example, to defend the horrible narratives that have been created by Hollywood. But, you would be hard-pressed to find any true liberating accounts of slave revolts that have been depicted in Hollywood films. Take legendary actor Danny Glover for example; who has experienced difficulty getting his production off the ground because of its narrative. His film captures the events of the Haitian Revolution led by Toussaint Louverture against “little man” Napoleon Bonaparte's French rule. A film like this further points out the discrepancy of Hollywood choosing to green light certain films while neglecting others. Best believe, there has been a great deal of talk in barbershops, beauty salons, breakrooms and living rooms across the nation for there to be an African American film recounting the historical events of the Nat Turner Rebellion. In short, Nat Turner was a literate slave and minister who led a slave revolt in 1831 against his captor’s plantation and neighboring plantations throughout the south.
The Wait is Over
Nate Parker has been burning the midnight oil, toiling away at his very own Nat Turner film, ironically called A Birth of a Nation. He introduces himself as a triple threat by writing, directing and acting in this film. The Birth of a Nation includes a stellar cast of Hollywood thespians with names such as Aja Naomi King, Aunjanue Ellis, Colman Domingo, Dwight Henry, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union and Arnie Hammer. Though the actual rebellion took place in Southampton County Virginia, the film crew began shooting in Savannah Georgia last May.
It is scheduled to be released at the Sundance Film Festival, January 21, 2016. The internet and social media is on FIRE over the recent news. Rarely do you see an individual in Hollywood brave enough go against the grain and create a film such as this; with all of its controversy stemming from the slaughter of white slave owners at the hands of black slaves. Some would say that the killings were justified given the circumstances; while others believe that the killings were senseless, using the old time phobia of the “Savage Negro” or “Black Brute.” Given the social media buzz surrounding this film, Parker has maintained a calm and consistent demeanor and is quoted as saying, I’m directing a film in the fall, a biopic on Nat Turner, who led the most successful slave revolt in American history. I call it the Black 'Braveheart.' I wrote the script, I’m starring. That’s where I want to go. The goal for me is to push the envelope always."
Fans of Nate Parker and historians alike are anticipating the release of this film. If successful, it could recreate the entire way in which black films are written, created and funded (outside of major production companies). As we wait to witness this historical presentation, we are currently left with a few still shots to hold us over. Nate Parker, I wish you and your film well...you got the juice now brotha!