Nat Turner may not be a historical figure that a junior high social studies classroom is likely to be quizzed on. But his story, now being dramatized in the new movie The Birth of a Nation, is an important one, though one most people are all-too ignorant of. Written by, directed by and starring Nate Parker, the movie follows Turner’s story in the first half of the 19th century, decades before the Civil War, when slavery was still largely accepted through much of the lower half of the country.
Turner was the slave of a wealthy, if struggling, landowner named Samuel Turner (played by Armie Hammer) who recognized Nat’s ability to read and write as a valuable asset and so took the man’s passion for The Bible and allowed him to preach to other slaves. In doing that, Nat saw the horrific conditions at other Virginia plantations and became convinced God sent him a vision to rise up against the oppressors and lead a revolution. Coordinating with others, Nat’s rebellion was short-lived, but provided a moment when the tables were briefly turned, even if it would be another 30 years before all slaves were freed across the country.
A motion – sorry, “living” – poster was released that featured voiceover dialogue from the movie as an image of a slave uprising pulled out from a focus solely on Nat to one that showed a mass of characters in an image that evoked the American flag, line after line of slave becoming the red stripes of the flag. It was a powerful effort, though I think calling this a “poster” in any fashion is a bit misleading. A traditional version featuring the same design idea was released around the same time as a teaser poster.
The second poster was even more powerful, showing Nat being hung by a noose made from an American flag. That’s striking in a number of ways, from the stark black and white of Nat’s face to the invocation of the lynching that was so often used as a punishment for slaves and into the segregated south of the 1900s. There’s no other copy or text, just the image and the title and that’s it. The poster, oddly, debuted on the streaming music site Tidal, which is clearly part of the outreach to that audience and the appeal to that group.
The first teaser trailer is…something. It’s less about showing us a story and more about just making plain to the audience what the life of a slave was like. It’s Nat’s story we’re following as we see him be a preacher both in and out of the house to his fellow slaves and even his masters. So it’s full of the kind of casual things that he and others had to deal with, including slave children being used as playthings by the white children. There’s obviously some kind of love story that’s here and toward the end we see what looks to be an uprising against as Nat leads a group of slaves charging toward a group of the white masters.
It’s incredibly moving and really just an incredible gut punch emotionally. If you don’t come away from this wanting to see the movie I’m not sure what’s gong on with you. It’s cut and arranged in exactly the manner to make everyone who didn’t see it at Sundance say “Oh, that’s what all the buzz was about.”
The second trailer takes a more linear approach to presenting the story, starting out by introducing us to Nat as a young boy and following him as he gets older, becoming a preacher to other slaves. That role is exploited by his masters to keep other slaves submissive. But Nat chaffs in the role because the cruelty inherent in the system keeps pushing him and everyone else down. So he begins to foment and then lead a revolution against the oppressors.
It’s just as powerful as the first, thanks largely to Nate Parker’s performance as Nat. But for those of us who haven’t seen the movie yet, the clearer way the story is presented helps us connect with him and the story as a whole much more strongly.
Online and Social
The first key art, with the living representation of the American Flag, is at the top of the movie’s official website. Also featured there are a box that can be expanded to play one of the trailers and, on the opposite side of the page, prompts to buy tickets for the movie or buy the soundtrack album. As you start to scroll down there are links to Fox Searchlight’s social profiles, though there weren’t any unique to the movie itself.
“About” is the first section of content on the site, though it’s painfully short considering how complex this story, an important one in the history of the country, actually is. Below that is “Cast,” which offers a tableau of the main cast that allows you to click on any of them to open up biographical information and career overviews of their previous work.
Both the teaser and theatrical trailer are found in “Videos” along with a behind-the-scenes featurette on the making of the movie.
The “Nat Turner Lives” section doesn’t provide more information on Turner himself but instead appears to be celebrating his legacy, specifically other people who have stood up to break boundaries and societal norms. Presented as a mosaic of faces and images, when you click on one of them you can find out more about them and how they were a pioneer in areas like voting rights, gender barriers in sports or other fields. Most of the people or events highlighted here come from the 1950s and 60s and not all of them have to do with racial equality, so this is meant to be people who have carried on Turner’s rebellious spirit, not the fight for one thing specifically.
Finally, there’s a prompt to sign up for email updates from Fox Searchlight and a link to find out where the movie is playing near you.
Advertising and Cross-Promotions
At least a few TV spots like this one were run that laid out the movie’s story in the barest of terms. So we see Turner in various scenes that set up his position in life – as a slave – and the impetus to rise up and help those around him. There’s no inciting incident on display, just the smoldering resentment of Turner and those around him and the feeling that they can’t take it anymore and so lashes out.
Outdoor ads included not just the standard one-sheets but also posters of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 movie with graffiti-like messages overlaid on them proclaiming “Nat Turner Lives,” a tactic many interpreted as being an attempt to, like the very title of the movie, take the term back from its racist meaning.
Online ads used various parts of the key art to drive ticket sales. Social ads on Twitter and Facebook did likewise, usually using one of the trailers or other videos.
Media and Publicity
The movie debuted at Sundance 2016 to overwhelmingly positive word-of-mouth and reviews, with many calling it the most compelling and invigorating movie of the festival. All that good buzz translated to a record-setting deal when Fox Searchlight won what was reported to be a bidding war for theatrical rights. It was such a hit it went on to win both the Audience and Grand Jury awards at the festival.
The movie was part of Fox Searchlight’s presentation at CinemaCon 2016, where the first teaser trailer debuted. It was also among those which debuted or otherwise screened at the 2016 Toronto International Film Festival.
Parker gave a big interview to Entertainment Weekly about the path the movie took to final production, including the support he got from Spike Lee and what else he did to make his vision happen.
Unfortunately it wasn’t all positive, as Parker had to address an issue from his college days where he was accused of rape, charges he was cleared of. But that story dominated the entertainment press for a couple days, casting somewhat of a pall over the movie, leading Fox Searchlight to at least wring its hands a bit, even if it continued with its previously planned campaign. The situation got worse from there, though, as the AFI canceled a planned screening and while the TIFF screening continued as planned, Parker opted out of the Q&A that was to accompany it.
All that came at the same time as countless thinkpieces and hot takes on the various angles of the situation, from a black point of view, from a feminist point of view, from a filmmaker point of view and everything else. Parker eventually made a more substantive statement on the issue that seemed to diffused some, but not all, of the tension in the room. At the Toronto press conference Parker did his best to sidestep the issue of his past actions, though they continued to loom large over all the goings-on and continued to inspire thousands of hot takes.
Closer to release Parker enjoyed a controversy-free appearance and screening at the Vancouver Film Festival but then an interview on “60 Minutes” turned things back to the negative as he refused to apologize or express any remorse, citing his exoneration as proof he didn’t have anything to apologize for. All that was in the wake of more op-eds, including an open letter from the sister of the woman he allegedly assaulted, that kept his past squarely in the spotlight.
In an effort to be timely – and since race is a big issue in this year’s election cycle – Fox Searchlight partnered with select theaters to place voter registration booths in those theaters before special advance screenings of the movie. There was also a whole aspect to the campaign involving screenings involving black religious groups and materials being made available for classrooms, all part of an effort to create some buzz for the movie in an instructive and productive way, not one that enflamed passions.
It’s interesting how all the controversy around Turner is coming to light now, in the build up to a movie Turner wrote and directed himself about a prominent, if not well-known, black figure in American history. There’s no evidence of this being part of a coordinated take-down campaign, but considering he’s been acting and receiving accolades for five years or more, it’s hard not to think that all of this was waiting for the moment he tried to make his own success and not just be part of other people’s project, especially given the subject matter of this movie.
Again, there’s no evidence this is part of a conspiracy to take his reputation down. And certainly the societal attitude around sexual assault is markedly different than it was even five or six years ago, which can explain a lot. But it’s hard not to look at this through the historical context of a black man trying to rise above his station and having others try to knock him down. That’s a story that’s been told time and time again and while I don’t want to discount what may have happened in Turner’s past, there’s a lot of precedent for controversies “suddenly” coming to light in circumstances just like this.
Moving beyond all that, Fox Searchlight has done a lot of good stuff in the formal marketing campaign. Not only is there a nice brand consistency to all the elements, but none of it shies away from the raw emotions that are contained in the story. There’s been a lot of comparisons to 12 Years a Slave from a few years ago, but even outside of that it presents a vital, important story that has a lot to say about today’s world, especially in light of the violence that’s perpetrated against black people by the police across the country, something that’s in the news seemingly every week.
Strong trailers, emotionally-resonant posters and more all add up to a strong campaign. I would have liked to have seen more about the real Nat Turner’s story on the official website – at least link to Wikipedia or a museum with an exhibit on Turner or something – but that’s a minor quibble. Overall the marketing here presents a movie that’s sure to be an uncomfortable watch but a vital one for people of all kinds.