With buzz palpable for those even the farthest away from Park City, a cinematic sensation appears brewing at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Monday night saw the world premiere of the provocative (and boldly titled) The Birth of a Nation, a new film directed, written, produced and starring Nate Parker (Beyond the Lights). Eagerly anticipated before its Sundance debut and feverishly greeted, the film- centering on a 1831 slave rebellion- broke history as Fox Searchlight shelled out $17.5 million for worldwide rights for the movie, the largest acquisition deal in Sundance history.
In a sense, the writing was on the wall what with diversity the hottest trending topic in the film industry at the moment stemming from the second year in a row where the Oscar nominations didn’t include one person of color in the acting line-up. The film features Parker in the leading role of Nat Turner, a former slave who leads a liberation movement to free African-Americans in Virginia in a violent retaliation from whites. Outside of Parker, the film features an impressive ensemble that includes Gabrielle Union (Top Five), Armie Hammer (The Man from U.N.C.L.E.), Aunjanue Ellis (The Help), Penelope Ann Miller (The Artist) and Jackie Earle Haley (Little Children). The film also famously shares a title with D.W. Griffith’s controversial 1915 classic, a film that helped spur the movie industry creatively back in the early days of cinema but is more infamous for its racist leanings.
“Without an honest confrontation, there is no healing,” said Parker onstage at the packed Eccles Theater after his debut feature film received a standing ovation. Early reviews have proven quite stirring as well. Justin Chang at Variety wrote: “Debuting writer-director Nate Parker stars in this searingly impressive account of the Nat Turner slave rebellion” With Fox Searchlight in command of the film, some pundits are already proclaiming the film may be an awards season breakout for next year; The Birth of a Nation has already sparked comparisons to Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years a Slave (2013), which also had Fox Searchlight’s backing.
After electrifying Sundance, nearly every major distributor was angling to pick up The Birth of a Nation. Reportedly, Sony, Universal, The Weinstein Company, Warner Bros., Paramount, Lionsgate and Netflix were all in the mix until Fox Searchlight eventually won distribution rights. While this marks his feature directorial debut, Parker has been featured in prominent roles in films as varied as Spike Lee’s Red Hook Summer, Denzel Washington’s The Great Debaters, Arbitrage and last years’ critically admired Beyond the Lights.
We will stay tuned to more information regarding The Birth of a Nation as it comes in.