The Birth of a Nation Lights Up Sundance

Few people knew who Nate Parker was before this week, but that’s all about to change as The Birth of a Nation debuted at Sundance and set a new sales record.

The producer, director, writer and actor received a standing ovation at the festival, reportedly before the film had even begun screening. This should come as no surprise considering the uncanny timing of a film about a slave rebellion in 1800s America, just when the world is debating the lack of diversity at the Academy Awards. For 100 years The Birth of a Nation was synonymous with messages of racism and inequality, but here Parker has presented the long-awaited counterargument to D.W. Griffiths, one steeped in an ideology of freedom, liberty and, to quote something else quite famous, justice for all (impressive for a Brit, eh?).

Following the screening, a bidding war ensued resulting in a record $17.5 million deal with Fox Searchlight, beating rivals Netflix and The Weinstein Co, despite reports that the VoD service was offering up to $20 million. But this is a cunning decision from a filmmaker that clearly has a long term strategy in mind, picking a distributor whose current and past titles include BrooklynYouthWildBlack Swan and 12 Years a Slave. It’s a safe assumption that we have our first major awards contender for 2017 confirmed, and for an organisation now desperate to demonstrate their inclusiveness this could be just the thing to go all the way.

The film is perhaps even more accomplished as a theological provocation, one that grapples fearlessly with the intense spiritual convictions that drove Turner to do what he had previously considered unthinkable – Justin Chang, Variety

To boot the record distribution deal at a festival which imbues The Birth of a Nation with appropriate indie credibility (this will be a film sold on Nate Parker as an auteur, outside the traditional Hollywood system on an ideological crusade), it’s getting some solid reviews too. Though Justin Chang (above) is slightly reserved, this early praise will go far.

So what is The Birth of a Nation actually about? The official imdb summary reads ‘Nat Turner, a former slave in America, leads a liberation movement in 1831 to free African-Americans in Virgina that results in a violent retaliation from whites’.

It has enough promotional similarities to 12 Years a Slave to lack originality, but more than enough poignancy to pull in decent box office numbers from a broad audience. If anything its Oscar winning predecessor proved an appetite still exists for this genre. It now has the same distributor, with perhaps the same release strategy in mind, though it is still too far away to say with any certainty if this will be among the Best Picture nominees next year.

I’ve heard many cynical comments about how Searchlight is only doing this in response to the #OscarsSoWhite controversy this year. Nonsense. The Birth of a Nation is a vibrant, furious piece of work, and the fact that it seems extra-relevant right now should be seen as a failure of our culture, not as a calculated move by Nate Parker or his collaborators – Drew McWeeny, HitFix

There is no doubt whatsoever that we’ll be hearing much more about The Birth of a Nation, probably towards the end of the year. There is also no doubt whatsoever that Academy members now have a racially charged contender to back in their droves, but the question still remains on whether this has the credentials to do it, both at the Oscars and the box office.

With no trailer our judgement is reserved. Watch this space for more…


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