PARK CITY, UTAH — A slave drama that hearkens back to Hollywood’s first movie epic is helping to lead the assault on the systemic racism called out by the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation, audaciously sharing the same title as D.W. Griffith’s racially insensitive silent film of 1915 that launched modern cinema, sold Tuesday for $17.5 million (U.S.) to Fox Searchlight, Variety reports. It’s the richest distribution deal in the history of the Sundance Film Festival, struck after all-night negotiations with multiple studio suitors who reportedly offered as much as $20 million for the worldwide rights.
The deal followed Monday’s emotional world premiere, where actor and filmmaker Parker basked in the glow of a lengthy standing ovation that began even before the house lights went up and while the credits were still rolling.
“I made this film for one reason and with hope of creating change agents: that people can watch this film and be affected,” said Parker, 36, as several dozen members of his cast and crew gathered around him on the stage.
“They 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.”
His words fell on receptive ears, with audience members telling him his film “carries a lot of responsibility” and asking what they can do to promote it.
Set in the Virginia of the 1800s, The Birth of a Nation tells the story of the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history, led by charismatic Nat Turner, an American-born slave and preacher played by writer/director Parker. His co-stars include Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley and Gabrielle Union.
He put his acting career largely on hold for seven years while he assembled the financing (including a lot of his own money) and then made the film, his feature debut behind the lens.
It bears obvious comparisons to 12 Years a Slave, the Oscar Best Picture winner from 2013 that many thought might change Hollywood’s traditional reluctance to tell black stories and cast diverse talent — until the past two years of all-white Academy Awards actor nominees proved the opposite, sparking the growing pushback campaign known as #OscarsSoWhite. (Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs has responded by pledging to diversify the Oscar nomination process in time for the 2017 event.)
But The Birth of a Nation is a rougher and more intense experience than 12 Years a Slave, with images of brutality that are even harder to watch. They include the force-feeding of a slave on a hunger strike, who first has his teeth knocked out by a hammer wielded by his white oppressor.
Another scene, almost unbearable in its superb command of the frame, has the camera moving backwards through a forest of dead slaves hung as punishment for challenging their white masters. Nina Simone’s haunting “Strange Fruit” plays on the soundtrack during the grim accounting.
There are also moments of black-on-white violence, especially in the final third of the film when the Turner-led slave rebels exact vengeance against the white plantation owners who have raped and beaten their women.
Parker said he encountered a lot resistance from Hollywood money people about making what they saw as “another slave movie,” one they felt wouldn’t do much business internationally.
“(They’ll say) people overseas really don’t want to see people of colour. I think that’s self-perpetuating and it’s easy to say that, but it speaks back to the D.W. Griffith original Birth of a Nation and the foundation of our industry . . . we’re built on sand, this industry, we just are.”
The film is already generating buzz for next year’s Oscars, with nominations for picture, director and actor among the likely kudos.
In the audience for Monday’s premiere was Ava DuVernay, director of the civil rights drama Selma, which controversially didn’t receive major nominations at last year’s Academy Awards.
Fox’s global distribution deal puts the lie to the notion of international indifference to the film and Parker made a point of thanking the many people of all races who backed his film regardless of profit considerations, because they believe it has an important story to tell about an overlooked historic figure and movement.
Parker, whose acting career includes roles in The Great Debaters and Beyond the Lights, is looking beyond awards to the much larger issue of Hollywood’s lack of diversity, which he said also includes issues of gender and sexual identity.
Like the preacher he plays so well in his film, he issued a call to action to his Sundance audience and beyond: “Are you passive or are you corrupt and complicit? There is no middle ground, right?”
Silence is golden
New York filmmaker Ira Sachs is an artisan of the small gesture and quiet epiphany, making beautifully constructed films like Love Is Strange and Forty Shades of Blue that illuminate the universal by way of the particular.
The Sundance veteran is back with another gem, Little Men, which has premiered here to thunderous applause. It’s set in a funky Brooklyn neighbourhood that’s in the process of gentrifying and the basic plot concerns the disruptive nature of change.
The new owners of a clothing shop (Greg Kinnear and Jennifer Ehle) want to triple the rent of their seamstress tenant (Paulina Garcia) because they can no longer afford the sweetheart deal allowed her by a recently deceased grandfather, who deeded them the shop. Both sides are reluctant to compromise and both make good arguments.
The battling adults have 13-year-old sons, Jake and Tony, played by wonderful newcomers Theo Taplitz and Michael Barbieri, who refuse to take sides. They instead embark on a silent protest, refusing to speak to their respective parents until the rent dispute is settled and apologies are made.
This could be sitcom stuff in the wrong hands, but Sachs and his fantastic cast (which also include Love Is Strange’s Alfred Molina) bring wisdom, humour and grace to the situation.
“I wanted to make an intelligent film about childhood,” Sachs said after Tuesday morning’s screening. Mission accomplished and mark Little Men on your must-see list for later this year.