If there was a lesson to be learned from filmmakers such as Melvin Van Peebles, Robert Townsend, Spike Lee and John Singleton, don’t wait for Hollywood to help tell your narratives. Do it your damn self. And based on the firestorm of media support for actor Nate Parker’s Sundance sensation, “The Birth of a Nation,” it appears the torch is being passed anew.
Parker’s ascent could not have been timed better. With the issue of diversity in Hollywood at a feverish pitch, the actor-filmmaker has made good on his passionate advocacy for preserving the black experience without stereotypes. And the success of “The Birth of a Nation” proves yet again that the art crafted by next generation filmmakers such as Parker, Steve McQueen, Gina Prince-Bythewood and Ava DuVernay are not anomalies in a studio system woefully in need of a reality check. We are witnessing a moment of reckoning that goes beyond the hashtag politics of #OscarSoWhite. We will need more than just validation from one voting group. We need the audience as a whole to say #MoviesAreSoUs…All of us.
I’ve had the privilege of interview Parker twice. The first time was in 2007 for the EPK for “The Secret Life of Bees” in Wilmington, North Carolina. We sat down again at the junket for “Beyond the Lights” in Los Angeles in 2014. That Prince-Bythewood was director of both films was no coincidence. Following is a Q & A piece written for the release of “Beyond the Lights” on Parker, with the actor not only offering some keen insights into the film, but a harbinger of things to come in terms of his artistic life. In a society obsessed with labels, his final thoughts to me in that interview ring powerfully true today:
“It only becomes a “black film” when we say it is.”
Here’s the original piece on Nate Parker in its entirety. (Special thanks to Tom Parker.)
Their connection happens in an instant. Noni is a rising pop star, but she is also starting to lose her grip due to the pressures of her growing fame. Kaz is a young police officer, seeking to honor a family legacy that serves and protects the community. They meet on a balcony under an L.A. sky, where he talks off the ledge, admitting he sees her for who she really wants to be. What happens next reveals their truest selves as they attempt to live a life “Beyond the Lights.”
In Gina Prince-Bythewood’s new romantic drama, love is presented as a complex reality in an era dominated by a fishbowl media culture. Despite the glamorous illusion of celebrity, money and success, sometimes the demands can prove a trap. It takes someone of great depth and soul to set people free. That is how Prince-Bythewood envisioned the role of Kaz, a positive force with which to balance out the chaos that surrounds Noni.
“A love story is not as interesting to me if it’s focused only on one side of it and I wanted to show both sides,” Prince-Bythewood said about writing “Beyond the Lights.” “These are two characters who have parallel lives, one is this father and son relationship that is much healthier than the mother-daughter, but they’re both struggling with trying to their authentic selves.
If the filmmakers had a tall order to fill in finding the right multi-faceted actress to portray Noni, discovering her “counterheart” was just as challenging. Yet, sometimes, the answer can be right in front of you. For Prince-Bythewood, her perfect Kaz had already walked in front of her camera: Nate Parker.
Since being part of the acclaimed ensemble of Prince-Bythewood’s “The Secret Life of Bees,” Parker has gone to enjoy great success in films as “Non-Stop” and “Red Tails.” With “Beyond the Lights,” he enters the realm of being a leading man, something the filmmakers have predicted since their first collaboration on “Bees.”
“Nate’s dope,” Prince-Bythewood said. “He just needs that one great role to propel him to leading man status. He’s very giving, and focused and specific. It was great to put him and Gugu together and immediately see the chemistry.”
Audiences have been quite taken with Parker’s grounding presence in films, a quality the actor exhibits off-screen, too. In talking about his role as Kaz in “Beyond the Lights,” he was eager express not only how much he wanted to re-team with Prince-Bythewood, but to take on a role that had the potential to resonate with people in a positive manner.
QUESTION: This is your second collaboration with Gina Prince-Bythewood. What proved the strongest motivating factor to be part of “Beyond the Lights?”
NATE PARKER: It was Gina. I knew that if she would be making a film, it would be challenging and thought provoking. It would say something that reached further than the thematic elements of the film. When I read the script my suspicions were confirmed and I said, “Yes” immediately. I always say she has a green light to my career because of her sensibility. She’s a pioneer, she’s a visionary and she doesn’t compromise. She takes her time with her projects and you know that you’re going to get something that you will be proud of.
QUESTION: Noni is as much a vivid character as Kaz is as calming soul. How did you work with Gina in making sure you weren’t overshadowed by Noni’s emotionally complex arc?
NATE PARKER: A lot of it it’s in the script. There is a complexity that is within Kaz that is quite congruent with Noni’s. Here you have two people that are projections of someone else. I would say that it’s even more dangerous for Kaz because there is no negative connotation. At some point, you have Noni’s character looking at her mom saying, “Enough is enough.” But, Kaz has a father that has demonstrated nothing but love. His whole thing is, “I want you to have a better life than I did and I will support you and I have supported you. And in the absence of your mother, I’ve stood in the gap and I’ve sacrificed for you and I love you.” That’s not him pointing his finger or having any kind of negative overtones. It’s him saying, “I just want you to be great” and Kaz saying, “That’s alright by me.” I say that’s dangerous because he accepts it as his life without really internalizing the fact that it isn’t what he wants for his life. It’s not until he meets Noni and looks into her eyes and says, “Wow! She’s going on a different level, she’s going through exactly what I’m going through.” They actually grow together. It would be a blow to Gugu’s character to say that this is a film about a guy that saves his girl. It’s not. It’s about two people that, through a series of events, save each other.
QUESTION: Both Noni and Kaz are living very public lives with varying degrees of scrutiny. Is the film saying we are we putting too much pressure on our kids to become “someone?”
NATE PARKER: Absolutely. I think that, being a father, the best thing you can do is cultivate. It’s like a rose bush. You prune it. You make sure it grows in a way that is healthy. You hope that by instilling a sense of identity, morality and responsibility into your child, they’ll make the right decisions. We can’t make decisions for our children because it’s only a matter of a time until they resent us and shut us out and that’s the danger. It’s fragile because you want to be involved enough that you can facilitate positivity in their lives. But, you want to be far back enough that you allow them to do it and grow on their own.
QUESTION: Despite the progress we are making in depicting a diversified culture, films like “Beyond the Lights” are still being referred to as a “black film.”
NATE PARKER: I think we can agree when we say love is universal. What are we dealing with in this film? We’re dealing with love, we’re dealing with mental illness, we’re dealing with suicide, and we’re dealing with identity crisis. These are things with which everyone can identify. We tested the film in Toronto with an all white audience, standing ovation. We tested it at Urban World with an all African American audience, standing ovation. It speaks to the power of the film, the power of love, but the power of obstacles and attaining that love. There are love stories that come out and it’s just about love. It’s just like they meet each other and there’s tears and they cry. To get to the love in this film, you have to go through a lot of stuff. We deal with hyper-sexualization. None of these things are completely specific to any color, which is why I think so many people enjoy and identify with the film. You can take an element and say, “I’ve lived that,” “I live that now,” “I’m still living a projection of my parents” or “I don’t talk to my parents because I finally was able to break away” or “I know someone who committed suicide because they couldn’t find themselves in time,” “I know someone who saved someone from committing suicide.” These are themes that we find in our lives that are so important, that are so relevant. It can change a conversation about love, about loss, about women, about men, about relationship. That’s a global thing. I challenge people to see this film and see it for what it is. It only becomes a “black film” when we say it is.