Sundance is only a few days in, but already the festival has found its “it” film: The Birth of a Nation, a long-gestating biopic about Nat Turner, historic leader of one of the most infamous slave rebellions in American history. The film, which premiered last night, has been met with resounding accolades and even, as some have reported, “Oscar buzz.” It’s also set a new record, securing the highest deal ever for a film at Sundance, at $17.5 million from Fox Searchlight Pictures.
The Birth of a Nation has been a years-long passion project for Nate Parker (perhaps best known for playing the romantic lead in Beyond the Lights), who wrote, directed and produced the film despite being told over and over again that it wouldn’t “work.” As he told the Hollywood Reporter, the not-uncommon arguments were made: it wouldn’t work internationally because of its black leads; it would be too expensive to film the violent scenes; the hero at the center—Turner—killed white landowners. Yet he persisted, and here it is, making huge waves at Sundance.
The title, of course, is every bit as political as you think it is—by calling back to D.W. Griffith’s 1915 opus, which helped reinvigorate the Ku Klux Klan for the 20th century and shape dangerous, harmful depictions of black Americans in the years that followed, it is a clever act of subversion. “I’ve reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America,” Parker tells Filmmaker, “to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change.” The film also stars Armie Hammer and Aja Naomi King.