Being part of the heralded new film “The Birth of a Nation” had a profound impact on New Orleans actor Dwight Henry.
“I’ve been blessed to be a part of some wonderful films, but this particular film — it really touched me, to learn of my history,” Henry said.
“The Birth of a Nation” will be released in October, but Henry joined two other stars — Aja Naomi King and Aunjanue Ellis — at a special screening of the film during the Essence Festival on Saturday at the Morial Convention Center in New Orleans.
The film, which received glowing reviews at the Sundance Film Festival in January, tells the story of Nat Turner, who led an 1831 slave revolt in Southampton County, Virginia.
Henry plays Isaac Turner, the father of Nat Turner, played by Nate Parker, who also wrote, produced and directed the film. The movie also stars Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley.
After shooting the film in Savannah, Georgia, Henry said he shared what he learned with his two sons, ages 7 and 9.
“I was able to give them a lot of African-American history that they don’t learn in school in Louisiana,” he said. “It gave me good insight to things I need to really be constantly teaching my children.”
Henry, who also has been in films including “Beasts of the Southern Wild” and “12 Years a Slave,” is a longtime New Orleans resident and baker.
“Growing up in New Orleans, we were made to believe that Robert E. Lee was our God and savior,” he said. “That’s what we were taught. They didn’t teach us a lot about heroes like Nat Turner. It’s great that films like this are being shown (so) that we can learn the true story of people like Nat Turner because a lot of history is written wrong. ... And I’m glad that the film will be able to shed a light on the true story of Nat Turner.”
Cori Murray, Essence’s entertainment director, who moderated the screening, quizzed Henry, King and Ellis and previewed short scenes from the film.
Murray’s question about the need for another film on slavery drew sharp responses from the actors, in light of recent criticism of TV series “Roots,” “Underground” and other films from prominent black entertainers.
Such films are essential for black people to know their history and know the true stories of some noted black people, said King, who plays Turner’s wife, Cherry, and also stars in the hit show “How to Get Away with Murder.”
“Going to school growing up, it was like a short line, not even a whole paragraph in the history book. ... They want to take away our heroes by keeping us ignorant, and that’s what so beautiful about Nate (Parker). He wants everyone to know that we can be our own heroes.”
An impassioned Ellis, who plays Nat Turner’s mother, Nancy Turner, said the film is important for black people to know who they are.
“We had a system in education ... that was intentionally and illegally intended to keep African-Americans ignorant of themselves,” said Ellis, a Mississippi native. “We have to know that. Seeing something like this, it’s not a film; it’s not a movie; it’s a re-education and a correcting of a miseducation of a people.”
King said Parker was able to educate people on the real Nat Turner, instead of the Turner portrayed in the 1967 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel “Confessions of Nat Turner” by William Styron.
“(Styron) tried to paint a picture of Nat Turner as someone who lusted after white women and wanted to be white ... and that’s why he led the rebellion in the first place because he was so jealous of white people, nothing to do with the honor of what this man actually did, fighting for freedom, fighting for humanity’s sake.”
After wrapping up the film, Ellis said she felt the message was clear.
“Injustice anywhere is injustice everywhere,” she said. “Our palatability — if that is the right word — for accepting discrimination, bigotry, we got to end that. I just felt like we have work to do. It just lit a fire under me to tell me I have work to do.”
Murray encouraged the audience to see the film in its entirety in October.
“Get the word out about this film. Support this man. It’s a testament to the brilliance of Nate Parker in getting the story because that means more stories can be told about our history,” Murray said.
“It was wonderful being a part of a film that made a difference, and I’ve always wanted to be part of something that makes a difference.”