Man at His Best

Birth of a Nation just set the record for Sundance's biggest sale ever

And the slave revolt movie deserves it

BY LOGAN HILL | Jan 28, 2016 | Film & TV

Image from Esquire US

At this year's Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker's incendiary new film Birth of a Nation is already rewriting history. Last night, the film was greeted with a standing ovation before the premiere screening even began. In the second straight year of #OscarsSoWhite, the mere existence of a high-profile film about Nat Turner, the enslaved preacher who led a 1831 revolt, had become a rousing, lightning-rod statement. After the film ended, there was another standing ovation, then rave trade reviews, a global Twitter trending topic, and talk of a goliath sale. That sale broke records today, when Fox Searchlight purchased the film for USD17.5 million dollars, the most ever paid for a Sundance premiere.

Nate Parker, the 36-year-old star of Beyond the Lights and The Great Debaters who wrote, directed, produced and stars in the film, will leave Sundance as an important rising American filmmaker. Though Parker's debut film has plenty of rough edges (some of which seem fixable before theatrical release), he fought for seven years to get the film made, and it shows. This passionate portrayal thrives because it is so driven by Parker's focused performance and the film's blunt physicality, which builds, as it must, into horrifically ugly violence: hatchets and axes, decapitated heads, whipped backs, slavers slaughtered in their sleep.

To ground this bloody story into something more than gore, Parker doubles down on Nat Turner's Christian faith. The devout, self-taught preacher is forced by his owner (Armie Hammer) to deliver soothing sermons at neighboring plantations in order to calm their unhappy slaves. Instead, seeing the depravity of their condition, Turner searches for answers in the same Good Book that slavers use to justify their institution. Turner wrestles with his faith, torn between a god of wrath and one of mercy. The film's most inspired battle is not the bloodbath at the end; it's the small scene mid-way through the film, when Turner and a slave-owning minister trade verses—spitting scripture like punches.

Parker, 36, doesn't play it safe, interweaving mythic, magic-realist sequences with mixed success to establish Turner's godly sense of mission, and parses out brutal images to drive the horror of slavery home: a little black girl being led on a noose-like leash by a white girl; a slave on a hunger strike who gets his teeth chiseled from his rebellious mouth. Some of these images and plot beats feel inspired; others seem too familiar. But his confidence in the story, as yet untold onscreen, drives the narrative compellingly forward.

Historically, Hollywood loves rebels who overthrow the wicked so long as they are white. We got a biopic about the creator of the Miracle-Mop before one about the man who led the most important slave revolt in American history. Parker bluntly confronts that history, with a sense of mission: Nat Turner was a founding father too.

The film's historic sale price will put a target on Parker himself. Over the next year, he will have to weather both reasonable critiques and also unfair sniping that might never be levied against the filmmakers behind high profile, mostly white Sundance flops like, say, Steve Coogan's Hamlet 2.

After the press and industry screening, I overheard several white male film critics and reporters (who look like me) speculating that the film won't possibly make back that record-breaking purchase price. One joked about the lack of sequel potential; another predictably sniped that Fox Searchlight overpaid because of all the recent furor over diversity. ("It's not like this is Blair Witch Project," one just said.) But no distributor ever pays for a film based purely on its artistic value, it's always a mix of flag-planting prestige, pure supply-and-demand, favoritism, and fickle bias. Birth of a Nation's huge price tag seems to be a reasonable reaction to the pent-up demand for more serious, diverse stories in an industry that has largely defined serious cinema as white cinema.

Whatever you make of the film, you've got to give Parker credit for one of the gutsiest film titles ever. This afternoon, when you Google "Birth of a Nation," the top result is still D.W. Griffith's racist, revisionist black-faced 1915 landmark, which retold the story of Civil War as a confrontation between white gentlemen and ravenous black savages. But Parker's Birth of a Nation is already hot on its heels. Later this year, when Fox Searchlight thrusts the film into the center of the 2017 Oscar campaign, a kid Googling Birth of a Nation might have to scroll down quite a ways to find the first one.

Already, this 36-year-old actor-turned-first-time filmmaker is rewriting history. It will be fascinating to see where he—and film history—go from here.

First published in Esquire US.