It’s no coincidence that Nate Parker’s upcoming “The Birth of a Nation” takes its name from D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film of the same name, of course, but it does seem to be a coincidence that Parker’s allusive title is preceded by Spike Lee’s. While attending NYU in the early ’80s, Lee wrote, directed and produced “The Answer,” which concerns a black filmmaker who gets hired to remake “The Birth of a Nation.”
Lee describes “The Answer” in a discussion with Pharell Williams, calling Griffith’s movie “one of the most racist films ever” — it’s credited with leading to the resurgence of the Ku Klux Klan in America; this and other negative reactions prompted Griffith to make “Intolerance” in response — and describing how it almost got him kicked out of school. “At NYU they showed the film, talked about the great innovations that D.W. Griffith came up with…well, they never talked about how this film was used as a recruiting tool for the Klan and was responsible for black people getting lynched,” he says.
“The faculty took it like I was attacking the father of cinema, so they kicked me out.” Someone stopped this, however: “Someone said, ‘We can’t kick him out because we gave him an assistantship for next year already.’ I worked in the equipment room, and I was the hardest worker in there, so they rewarded me for that…If the evaluations had come first, before the assistantship, I’d have been kicked out of school!”
Parker set a record when “The Birth of a Nation” was acquired by Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, and recently made headlines of a different sort when his involvement in a 1999 rape charge resurfaced. His film is being released theatrically on October 7.