Nate Parker’s powerful slavery drama “The Birth of a Nation” signalled the birth of a major new talent on Monday, garnering multiple standing ovations at its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.
The film arrives at a time when Hollywood is eager to embrace an empowering story from a promising director of color, coming on the heels of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy that ignited due to a lack of diversity among this year’s Oscar nominees.
The context of current events is important, as it may help explain why the Eccles crowd gave “Birth of a Nation” a standing ovation before it even started, though it was only a fraction as long as the one that followed the film.
Best known as an actor, with a resume featuring impressive turns alongside Richard Gere in “Arbitrage” and Denzel Washington in “The Great Debaters,” Parker said he risked his acting career by taking time off to write, direct and produce “Birth of a Nation,” which has been a passion project for him over the past seven years.
He also stars as Nat Turner, the legendary hero who led a 48-hour slave rebellion against his white masters. Among the supporting cast, Jackie Earle Haley and Jayson Warner Smith make the strongest impressions as two sadistic villains, while Aja Naomi King is also quite good as Nat’s wife.
Parker said he made the film “to create change,” noting that “there are still a lot of injustices in our world.” He was joined onstage by dozens of his fellow cast and crew members, who nodded in agreement with Parker stated, “without an honest confrontation, there is no healing.”
“Birth of a Nation” drew the inevitable comparisons to “12 Years a Slave,” though it isn’t quite as accomplished as that Oscar-winning masterpiece. While the film represents an impressive debut for Parker, it still feels like a first film at times, and doesn’t really soar until its final act. In keeping with the times, the film is extremely violent and may not be for the faint of heart, though it demands to be seen.
That said, “Birth of a Nation” is an early frontrunner for the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance and will no doubt start a bidding war, though it will be interesting to see whether Fox Searchlight gets involved so soon after “12 Years a Slave.” It’s the sort of title that Amazon or Netflix might overpay for just to break into the awards race next year.
“12 Years a Slave” grossed $187 million worldwide, including $131 million overseas. Of course, that film boasted Brad Pitt, Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch, while Parker isn’t nearly as established in foreign markets. While it may not have the same star power, “Birth of a Nation” couldn’t be more timely, and will likely resonate with today’s audiences. “These people thought they were doing good when they were doing bad. In 2016, that echoes,” said Parker.