Last night was the Sundance world premiere of writer, director, producer and star Nate Parker‘s magnificent ★★★★★ tour-de-force passion project The Birth Of A Nation, and all indications are that we are also witnessing the birth of an American classic as well. The standing ovation was one of the longest ever witnessed at a Sundance premiere, and lasted well into the end of the credits. Dominic Patten of Deadline Hollywood described the moment the lights came up: “[It] was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had at a movie theater.”
The film tells the true story of slave Nat Turner (1800-1831), played by Parker himself, who led a brutal 48-hour rebellion of slaves and free blacks in Southampton County, Virginia on August 21, 1831 that resulted in 60 white deaths. Armie Hammer plays one of those slave owners and in response to one audience member’s question during a post-screening Q&A about how difficult it was to play such a despicable man, Hammer said: “It sucked, it was not fun. There were definitely days when Nate had to stop what we were doing and remind us why we were all here because everybody felt the emotional burden of it. But at the same time it was a story that needs to be told.” The film also stars Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union.
“[The Birth Of A Nation] seemed to leave the audience (which included notable guests like Spike Lee) abuzz with an electric energy,” writes Rebecca Ford of The Hollywood Reporter. “After Parker took the stage again for the Q&A portion (and received another standing ovation), he welcomed onstage not only many members of the cast but also dozens of crewmembers. ‘This film carries a lot of responsibility. How can we help you carry it?’ asked someone in the audience in the first question of the night. ‘I made this film for one reason, with the hope of creating change agents,’ Parker responded. ‘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. I just want you, if you are affected and you are so moved, to ask yourself: Are there systems in my life that need attention whether it be racial, gender? There are a lot of injustices.'”
Getting the film made was a gruelling process for Parker, not only for the fact that he had to give up acting for two years, but also because no investor was willing to finance the project. “It was very difficult, for so many reasons,” he said. “I think any time we’re dealing with our history, specifically with slavery, I find that it has been desperately sanitized. There’s a resistance to dealing with this material.” Parker adds, “I put my own money in,” he said. “I sacrificed everything.” He recalls the moment when he nearly gave up the project. It happened in 2012 while he was filming George Lucas‘s Red Tails. He recalls Lucas pulling him aside and giving him an enormous boost of confidence: “When everyone is telling you something can’t be done,” Lucas told Parker, “that’s how you know you’re on the right track.”
Ramin Settodeh, New York film critic for VARIETY writes, “The Birth Of A Nation’s premiere couldn’t be more timely for Hollywood. The Oscars have come under fire in recent weeks for nominating only white actors for the second consecutive year. With the right distributor — and the big players from Fox Searchlight to Amazon were all in attendance — The Birth of a Nation could be the second major Oscars contender to premiere out of [this year’s] Sundance (Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By the Sea,’ which debuted on Saturday, sold to Amazon for $10 million and a guarantee of an awards season push).” And judging by the number of agents and assistants who were screaming in their cellphones as they waited in the lobby for Parker afterwards, it’s safe to say a huge distribution deal will be announced very soon. Once again, it looks like Sundance has found another of Oscar’s crown jewels. (Photos courtesy of Deadline Hollywood and Chris Pizzello/Invision/AP)
UPDATE #1: The bidding war for the international rights to The Birth Of A Nation are getting very intense, and will likely go well into the night. Read the full story at TheWrap.com.
UPDATE #2: FOX Searchlight has won the rights to The Birth Of A Nation for an impressive $17.5M, beating out Weinstein Company, Netflix, Paramount, and others. Read the full story at HollywoodReporter.com.