The Legacy of the Nat Turner Insurrection
Program Date: November 19, 2016
Norfolk, Virginia, native Nate Parker is the writer, producer, director, and star of The Birth of a Nation (2016), a film about the 1831 Nat Turner slave uprising in Southampton County, Virginia.
At The Forum, Parker discussed the importance of bringing this story to the big screen and its relevance to the ongoing struggle for justice and equality in America. He emphasized the importance of engaging in the conversation around race and the lessons that Nat Turner can teach about revolution.
The Virginia State University Gospel Chorale learned “Couldn’t Hear Nobody Pray,” the song that plays over the closing credits of Nate Parker’s film, The Birth of a Nation (2016).
Tom McInerney, President & CEO of Genworth, the Lead Patron for the evening, welcomed Nate Parker to the stage at the Altria Theater.
Mr. Parker was joined by John B. Railey, Editorial Page Editor of the Winston-Salem Journal.
Nate Parker Speaker Bio
An acclaimed actor, director, screenwriter, and producer, Nate Parker is committed to transforming his industry by training and supporting other independent filmmakers. His prize-winning film, The Birth of a Nation was released in theaters in October 2016.
Born in Norfolk in 1979, Parker was a champion wrestler at Chesapeake’s Great Bridge High School before accepting an athletic scholarship from Penn State. He later transferred to the University of Oklahoma where he became an All-American while earning his degree.
After moving to California to study acting, Parker played the role of Henry Lowe in The Great Debaters, the acclaimed 2007 movie directed by Denzel Washington. His powerful portrayal landed him a role opposite Queen Latifah in the 2008 film The Secret Life of Bees.
Opportunities thereafter were plentiful. Parker accepted a lead role in the 2012 George Lucas movie Red Tails, starred in Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, and appeared alongside Richard Gere in Arbitrage. In 2014, he played the lead in the critically-praised film Beyond the Lights.
Yet even as his acting career was taking off, there was another constant preoccupation for Parker: the desire to create a film based on the life of Nat Turner, the mostly forgotten leader of an 1831 slave rebellion in Virginia in which more than 60 white people were killed.
After six years of planning, in 2014, Parker announced he had secured funding and began assembling a team to create The Birth of a Nation. Parker wrote and directed the film, also casting himself to play the title role of Turner. Premiering to rave reviews at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival, after which Fox Searchlight Pictures purchased its distribution rights for a festival record $17.5 million, the film won both the festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award. In August, Parker was presented with the Sundance Institute’s Vanguard Award which includes a cash grant and mentorship from industry professionals. Parker was also awarded the CinemaCon Breakthrough Director of the Year Award and the Disruption Innovation Award at the Tribeca Film Festival.
Parker is committed to being an outspoken activist and positive force in the community. He mentors children from schools in central Los Angeles and spearheads projects with the Boys and Girls Clubs. He recently launched the Nate Parker Foundation, a non-profit with a mission to confront systemic disparities within African American communities in the areas of education, cultural enrichment, and social and economic justice.
In 2017, Wiley College and Parker’s foundation launched the inaugural Nate Parker Summer Film Institute, a workshop for aspiring student filmmakers. Parker has also announced plans to build a comprehensive film school at the college.
John B. Railey Moderator Bio
John Railey grew up in Southampton County, Virginia, the site of Nat Turner’s revolt, where memories of the violence are in the very air. His father was an Atticus Finch-type lawyer whose support of integration cost him business. John Railey has grappled with the revolt for much of his life, including by enlisting William Styron, the author of the controversial 1967 novel The Confessions of Nat Turner, as a mentor. He corresponded and visited with Styron and showed him the remnants of the revolt route as a film crew worked on a documentary of Styron’s life. Railey has written numerous columns about the revolt.
In one of those columns, this past March in the Winston-Salem Journal, he wrote, “I and many other treasured buddies, black and white and raised in Southampton, are haunted by this revolt that killed almost 60 white men, women and children and led to the court-ordered executions of most of the small band of rebels and the random revenge killings of as many as 100 blacks. My contemporaries and I were just a few long generations past the carnage as we went through the first strange years of integration.”
Railey was educated at the University of Virginia and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a veteran of newspapers in Virginia and North Carolina and is currently the editorial page editor of the Winston-Salem Journal. He has won numerous national and state awards for his work. He helped lead the more-than-10-year fight for North Carolina to become the first state in the nation to compensate victims of forced sterilization, a battle he chronicles in Rage to Redemption in the Sterilization Age: A Confrontation with American Genocide. He is at work on a novel about integration in his home county.
He and his wife, Kathleen, live in North Carolina’s Piedmont Triad region.
The Birth of a Nation (2016)
Directed by Nate Parker
The Confessions of Nat Turner
William Styron, 1967