SHOW STOPPER: Gabrielle Union
HOLLYWOOD ACTRESS Gabrielle Union says her mother used the story of Nat Turner to motivate her into action when it became apparent that the effects of "assimilation" had taken too firm a hold on her.
Union, 44, stars in Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation, where she portrays Esther, one of the slaves who is brutalised by the plantation owners.
The Birth of a Nation depicts the true story of the slave rebellion led by Nat Turner; one of the most influential acts of armed resistance in American history.
On the night of August 21, 1831, the uprising would claim the lives of between 44 and 65 whites and later more than 200 slaves were killed as the Virginia militia carried out ruthless reprisals.
Q: Had you heard this story before your involvement with the project?
I had, when I was probably about 13 or 14. I grew up in a suburb of San Francisco, a predominantly white, very conservative community. My mom saw that the assimilation had probably been a little too complete, and I was incredibly complacent and silent in the face of any adversity – in the face of racism, in the face of bullying from my peers, I didn’t act. My mom, trying to inspire me, shared a number of stories, one of them being Nat Turner. It gave me something to aspire to. My mom used it as a motivational tactic to get me to be the leader that I am today.
Q: Are you surprised that there hasn’t been a film on Nat Turner’s story before?
It’s actually not remarkable. It’s actually quite typical, unfortunately. There is nothing more American and nothing more patriotic than a fight for liberation and a fight against oppression – that’s what our country is founded upon – but something about black liberation, black resistance, or the resistance of any people of colour, is terrifying.
Q: Where does your character, Esther, fit into this story?
Esther is the wife of Hark (Colman Domingo). In all things, she has a very typical experience for a slave woman in the south. She is very much a part of the community: she enjoys her family; you see her getting married; you see the joy that exists that we have created amongst ourselves. A lot of slave narratives leave out our humanity, they leave out our community and our sense of family, and how important family ties are. Like many held in bondage, sexual violence was used as a weapon of mass destruction, and used to destroy your soul and your psyche and your body, and used to destroy the family, and like so many other women, Esther was raped.
Q: What was it like to film on a real plantation?
I’m not really one for the paranormal, but there is something spooky and creepy and oppressive about the space, about the land, about the home. It has witnessed horrors unspeakable. We can’t even imagine the pain that is in the soil, generational pain. It fascinates me that people would think to have a wedding on a plantation. To me, it was a house of horrors. It was the same feeling I got when I visited Dachau in Germany. Some people like to reimagine it and put a different face on it, and especially with the south, we like to really gentrify the whole sordid mess, but to me, I walked on that set and felt our people very present. They had not left the land. My ancestors were there in force, and you couldn’t escape that feeling. You couldn’t escape the brutality that envelops the land. I was praying to our ancestors and praying to God. Really, I remember action and nothing else. The next thing I know, I just remember applause and being surrounded by the crew and Colman [Domingo] and Nate [Parker]. Everyone was just weeping.
Q: Nate had never directed a film before. How did he handle this?
I was working in two productions, so literally down to the minute, it had to be just so, because otherwise I was going to miss scenes. I had to get back to work. Nate literally had every scene down to the minute. This man did not go over, he was never behind. There might have been rain, or weather, that slowed him down a bit, but he always had a back-up plan. I’ve probably never worked with anyone who’s more prepared and clear about their intentions, and the goal. You just saw how badly he wanted it, and you just wanted to help him get there, and help him realise his dream. He’s just an incredibly passionate and prepared director.