Since its kick-off on Thursday, Sundance has been slowly heating with new buzzy, must-see films every day and a slow-boiling acquisitions market hijacked by relatively new players in the game like Netflix and Amazon. But late in the afternoon of day five, the festival got its biggest spark yet thanks to Nate Parker’s incendiary The Birth of a Nation.
The title, of course, is an ironic nod (or rather a defiant head-shake) to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 silent film The Birth of a Nation — the still controversial and still deeply troubling epic set during the Civil War that paints the Ku Klux Klan heroically, slaves abysmally, and dramatizes the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. Griffith’s film is one of the bedrock cornerstones of American film history and one the most embarrassing skeletons in its celluloid closet. Parker’s film is an antidote to Griffith’s.
This Birth of a Nation is an emotionally-charged dramatization of Nat Turner’s famous 1831 slave rebellion, which became one of the early seismic tremors leading up the Civil War. Parker, an actor who’s appeared in movies like Red Hook Summer, Arbitrage, and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints, not only wrote and directed the film, he also produced it and stars as Turner. It took him seven years to make. And you can feel his commitment and conviction in every frame, even if the film lacks the artfulness and subtlety of its obvious thematic counterpart, 12 Years a Slave.
The film traces Turner’s life growing up on a Virginia plantation in the early 1800s, where he was taught to read and sermonize from the Bible. His intelligence and passion is so strong that other, crueler slave masters pay his owner (played by Armie Hammer) to have Nat preach the gospel to their slaves in order to make them abandon any thoughts of rebellion and accept their lot as God’s will. As Turner travels from plantation to plantation seeing fresh horrors and atrocities at every turn, he’s no longer willing to be used in this way. His fire and anger lead him to mount a violent rebellion against the white slave owners in his county.
Parker’s performance as Turner is undeniably affecting, as are those by his costars Hammer, Aja Naomi King as the slave who becomes his wife, and Jackie Earle Haley as a sadistic brute. As he witnesses the unspeakable brutality and dehumanizing treatment of his fellow slaves (including several scenes that are so sickening they’re difficult to watch), Parker’s Nat becomes a stick of dynamite ready to detonate.
It takes a while for Turner’s rebellion to come, but when it finally does in the film’s climactic final act, it’s a bloody and gruesome release. And apparently not just for the characters on screen. Several dozen members of the Sundance audience applauded and cheered during the film’s explosion of violent retribution. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out why that may be. While our country’s never not had a time with racial tension, The Birth of a Nation comes at an especially tense time – not just in Hollywood during the current Oscar season or on the presidential campaign trail, but far more importantly and urgently in most of our cities every day.
Parker acknowledged as much when he stepped on stage to a standing ovation after his film ended. During a the post-film Q&A session, one audience member asked the director, “This film carried a lot of responsibility, how can we help you carry it?” Parker replied that he made the movie for one reason: to create change agents. Not just in regard to race, but gender, sexuality, any form of injustice. As of right now, The Birth of a Nation doesn’t yet have a distributor. It will be interesting to see in the coming days (or maybe even the coming hours) which one of them shares Parker’s passion and is willing to put their money where their mouths are.