Sundance roars for Nate Parker's slavery epic 'The Birth of a Nation'


Brooks Barnes

Nate Parker: "I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents. That people can watch this film ...

Nate Parker: "I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents. That people can watch this film and be affected." Photo: Elliot Davis/Courtesy Sundance Institute

With the outcry over an all-white field of acting nominees for the coming Academy Awards, and the shutout of several films focused on black characters from the best picture race, Hollywood has come under extreme pressure in recent weeks to find more prestige-minded movies with diverse casts.

And this week at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker delivered one.

The Birth of a Nation, a blistering slave-revolt drama that Parker wrote and directed (along with playing the lead character), had its premiere here Monday afternoon. Critics responded with instant rapture. By Tuesday morning, Fox Searchlight had won a bidding war for the distribution rights by offering an astounding $17.5 million - a Sundance record.

A still from 'The Birth of a Nation'.

A still from 'The Birth of a Nation'. Photo: Elliot Davis/Courtesy Sundance Institute

Underscoring the aggressive arrival of streaming services like Amazon and Netflix on the Sundance scene, in many cases driving up prices, Netflix made an even more lavish offer, according to a person involved in the sale who spoke on the condition of anonymity. Parker's eagerness for the film to be shown in theatres for an Oscar run may have tipped the decision in Fox Searchlight's favour.


The specialty studio, owned by 21st Century Fox, has a long history as an Academy Awards powerhouse. In 2014, it maneuvered the similarly themed 12 Years a Slave to nine Academy Award nominations and three wins, including best picture. Fox Searchlight also distributed Birdman, the reigning best picture winner.

Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula, the presidents of Fox Searchlight, said in a statement that Parker's "dedication and artistry in revitalising Nat Turner's legacy and place in history has resulted in an extraordinarily compelling and moving film that delivers on every level."

The Birth of a Nation follows Nat Turner, a kind, literate slave and preacher who - after exposure to severe acts, including watching an overseer use a hammer to knock out the teeth of a disobedient slave - organises an extreme rebellion in the antebellum South. Plantation owners and military officers retaliate severely.

Aja Naomi King co-stars as Turner's wife, Cherry, the victim of a horrific gang rape. Armie Hammer plays a sometimes kind, sometimes brutal plantation owner. The film is Parker's feature directorial debut.

The film, based on a true story, borrows its title from the 1915 D.W. Griffith movie that is considered both a classic for its innovative filmmaking technique and racist for its stereotypical depiction of blacks and its sympathetic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. "Griffith's film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance," Parker, 36, said in a recent interview with Filmmaker Magazine.

He pointedly added, "Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today."

Parker's The Birth of a Nation is poised to join a subgenre of films touching on slavery that Oscar voters have supported over the years, even as they have been slow to rally around films about contemporary African-American life. In addition to 12 Years a Slave, Steven Spielberg's Amistad, about the events after a mutiny on a slave ship, was nominated for four Academy Awards in 1998; Quentin Tarantino's Django Unchained drew five nominations in 2013, including one for best picture, and won two Oscars.

In an unusual show of support, at least by Sundance standards, The Birth of a Nation received a standing ovation before it even played. The moment, which had a cathartic feeling after days of #OscarsSoWhite tension, coincided with Parker's introduction of the film at the 1,270-seat Eccles Theatre. Parker brought what seemed to be his entire cast and crew, many of whom rose to their feet when he appeared.

After the credits rolled - again, to whoops and cheers - Parker spoke of how deeply the racial injustices and atrocities covered in the film continued to reverberate today. "Are you passive, or are you corrupt and complicit?" he asked the audience. "There is no middle ground."

He added: "I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents. That people can watch this film and be affected. That you can watch this film and see that there were systems that were in place that were corrupt and corrupted people, and the legacy of that still lives with us."

The New York Times