PARK CITY, UTAH — The reception for "The Birth of a Nation" during its premiere at the Sundance Film Festival on Monday was rapturous verging on mythic. As the movie ended, the sold-out crowd leaped up for a standing ovation, then viewers remained on their feet, in the dark, in awed silence for minutes as the credits continued to roll.
This is an auspicious start for Nate Parker, the director, producer and co-writer who stars as Nat Turner in the movie about the slave and preacher, who led a rebellion in southern Virginia in 1831. You may have seen Parker before — he's been acting for more than a decade, starring in "Beyond the Lights," "Red Tails" and "Arbitrage." But a couple years ago, he vowed to take a break until he could make his passion project.
That was easier said than done, especially when it came to securing the funds.
"There's a resistance to dealing with this material," Parker explained during a Q-and-A following the premiere. And he heard all the excuses: People don't want to see another slave movie; audiences overseas won't want to watch actors of color; financiers couldn't possible get a return on their investment. But he was set on creating "a healing mechanism for America."
He always came back to advice that George Lucas gave him when they worked together on "Red Tails." "When everyone's telling you something can't be done," the director told Parker, "that's how you know you're on the right track."
The provocative drama opens on Turner as a young boy (Tony Espinosa), when he is one of few slaves to learn to read and write. Later on, he falls in love with and marries another slave, Cherry (Aja Naomi King), and travels around Southampton County with his master, Samuel (Armie Hammer), to preach the gospel to laborers on neighboring plantations. During these trips, Turner is expected to read passages from the Bible that will persuade servants to be obedient to their masters.
But, as the movie unfolds, he witnesses the sadistic ways that some men treat their slaves, and following the attack of his wife, Turner can bear it no longer. He orchestrates an uprising that leaves dozens of slave owners dead.
It was the bloodiest slave uprising in history, but the backlash that followed the rebellion was even deadlier. Up to 200 slaves were killed, many of whom had nothing to do with the rebellion.
"The Birth of a Nation," which is gorgeously shot and expertly acted, feels revolutionary.
For starters, the movie cleverly co-opts the title of D.W. Griffith's pioneering film that glorified the Ku Klux Klan and painted black men as predators. It also doesn't shy away from the brutality of the time — not just the way slave owners whipped, raped and abused their servants, which we've seen before on screen, but also the way the slaves massacred their captors. One slave, who had been tortured by his master, hacks the man to death then holds up his severed head. Audience members whooped in approval, but the revenge fantasy is inevitably fleeting. The pay-off isn't the stuff of "Death Wish" or "Django Unchained," because the massacre is part of a cycle that was born of violence and will only lead to more.
There's also a conspicuous absence of stereotypes. There's no "white savior," nor is there one cartoonishly sadistic villain. For example, Samuel, although he's a slave owner, seems at first like a somewhat benign character. He and Nat play together as children, and later Samuel protects Nat from white bullies.
Not that it was an easy or enjoyable role.
"It sucked," Hammer admitted during the post-movie discussion. Sometimes Parker would have to stop the cameras to remind Hammer and the cast why they were there. This was "a man corrupted by the system," Hammer said. "There wasn't anyone who went to bed at night with a clean conscience."
Parker explained that he wasn't interested in painting the oppressors as sociopaths, because that might give viewers an excuse to see the human beings on screen as monsters and think, well, that's not me. The director was more inclined to look at Turner's story as an example of a grossly broken, albeit lawful system.
"There were so many people that were complicit," Parker said. "And not just hillbillies." Academics and scientists, too, condoned the practice of slavery, he explained.
Parker's goal in making "The Birth of a Nation" was to give viewers an unsanitized view of what happened, because "without honest confrontation, there is no healing." Secondly, he hopes movie-goers will think about the way we live now — what systems do we have in place that might be corrupt? And do we, as American citizens, passively accept the injustices or do we work to do something about them?
"Because these people, in their benevolence, thought they were doing good," Parker said. After all, they had the law of the land and cherry-picked passages from the Bible to support their deeds. But, as "The Birth of a Nation" so effectively demonstrates, oppressors inevitably end up on the wrong side of history.
Meanwhile, all the work Parker did to scrape together the $10 million budget and will his passion project into existence is paying off. Sony, Netflix, the Weinstein Company and Fox Searchlight reportedly spent the night vying for the rights, with Fox Searchlight winning out in a $17.5 million deal.
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