One movie that could ease Oscars’ diversity crisis
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Mar 01, 2016  |  Vote 0    0

One movie that could ease Oscars’ diversity crisis

This time next year, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag should be retired. That’s mainly because of The Birth of a Nation

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Bold prediction: This time next year, the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag will be retired and the Academy Awards show host will ease up on the vanilla Hollywood jokes.

That’s mainly because of The Birth of a Nation, the Sundance 2016 sensation about a slave rebellion in pre-Civil War Virginia, led by a black preacher played by Nate Parker, who also directs and co-writes.

This searing historical drama, winner of two top Sundance prizes, already has serious buzz as a likely contender for Oscars 2017. But more than that it points with strength and hope toward a more diverse movie industry.

This fact-based drama received a standing ovation even before its world premiere last month at Sundance. This was followed the next day by a record $17.5-million (U.S.) distribution sale to Fox Searchlight, which took 12 Years a Slave all the way to a Best Picture win at the 2014 Academy Awards.

It was the highest price ever paid for a film not just at Sundance but at any film festival, TIFF and Cannes included. That’s an indication of Fox’s confidence that the film will be a hit, not just at the box office and the Oscars but in the broader cultural conversation. It will be proof that Hollywood doesn’t need to exclusively tell white stories with white actors to do good business and win awards.

There are good indicators to back up this belief, including the announcement this week of an Oct. 7 wide release for The Birth of a Nation, timed for a likely TIFF launch just before that and also the start of Oscar campaigning.

And there are other factors in the film’s favour:

It’s an American hero story that needs telling

Nate Parker portrays Nat Turner, an American-born preacher who in 1831 led the most successful slave rebellion in U.S. history. The revolt left 250 people slain, mostly blacks killed in retaliation by whites. The uprising helped turn the tide against slavery and changed U.S. history. But until now, Turner’s song has been largely unsung.

White author William Styron controversially won a Pulitzer Prize in 1968 for fictionalizing the rebel’s story in The Confessions of Nat Turner and the slave revolt featured in one episode of Roots, the landmark 1977 TV miniseries. The Birth of a Nation will take Turner’s story into the multiplexes, and focus global attention on a little-known American hero and a still-simmering debate about racial equality.

Parker’s own story is also dramatic

Nate Parker has impressive co-stars in his film, including Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, Jackie Earle Haley, Gabrielle Union and Penelope Ann Miller. But he’s very much the draw both on and off the screen for his feature directing debut, with a lot of charisma and a personal story that has drama of its own. A one-time all-American wrestler turned actor, best known for roles in The Great Debaters, Non-Stop and The Secret Life of Bees, Parker put his acting career largely on hold for seven years while he assembled the financing, including a lot of his own money.

He embodies the American Dream of self-made success.

It’s not just “another slave movie”

Parker has provocatively given The Birth of a Nation a title matching that of D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent opus, which pioneered feature film storytelling but also championed the racist Ku Klux Klan.

Parker wants people to reflect on the significantly different stories behind those similar titles. He also wants them to know that his film isn’t just a knock-off of 12 Years a Slave, as money people told him when they dismissed his production pitch as “another slave movie.”

In fact, 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.

Parker wants a revolution, not a night out

Parker told his cheering Sundance audience, including Selma director Ava DuVernay, that he made his film “with hope of creating change agents.”

By this he means not just empowering people and waking up Hollywood to make movies and the Oscars more diverse, although these are important. He’s also challenging people to address systemic racism, sexism and other “isms,” especially during this crucial U.S. presidential election year.

“Are you passive or are you corrupt?” Parker thundered at Sundance. “There’s no middle ground, right?”

Toronto Star

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