Some huge news came out of the Sundance Film Festival today when Fox Searchlight bought the world rights to the overwhelming festival hit The Birth of a Nation for $17.5 million. This is the largest acquisition deal ever made at Sundance, the result of a “freewheeling all-night bidding battle,” and it is— to put it simply— f*cking IMPORTANT.
If you haven’t heard of The Birth of a Nation, no, it’s not THAT The Birth of a Nation. Actor/writer/director Nate Parker has managed the incredible feat of reclaiming the title of an atrocity of American and film history, and using it to tell the story of Nat Turner, leader of an important rebellion against slavery.
The story of how this movie came to be is a fascinating one, which you can read in full here, but basically, it now exists because Parker refused to give up on the idea. Despite carving out an impressive film career, he was frustrated by the roles he was being offered.
So few of them had integrity. As a black man, you leave auditions not hoping you get the job but wondering how you explain it to your family if you do.
So after finishing production on Beyond the Lights in 2013, he told his agents he wouldn’t act again until he could play Nat Turner. But as he shopped this idea around, he got all the no’s you would expect: it would be too expensive; it would need a big name lead, and even then, movies with black leads don’t do as well internationally; Nat Turner killed a bunch of white people— audiences don’t want to watch that. So Parker invested $10,000 of his own money and got started on the project himself. Eventually, he locked down a producer to raise the rest of the $10 million, and got an incredible cast. (Gabrielle Union and Armie Hammer are the biggest name, but the whole team is impressive.) And now it’s been sold for $17.5 million, which Fox is expected to make back many times over.
This is an incredible story of perseverance, to the point where in a few decades, a biopic about Nate Parker making this movie might do very well. But as soon as the film got its standing ovation and the raves started pouring in, a dark shadow of sh*ttiness also crept in. People (maybe just a few by comparison, but I’ll almost always maintain that dissent is important to notice before dismissing it as idiotic) started complaining that the movie is only doing well in the context of the current Oscars outrage, saying that Parker’s film is only getting recognition because of his ethnicity and the subject matter.
This is my fifth Sundance, and all I can tell you is BIRTH would've gone over like this any of those years. Great movie is great.— Jason Bailey (@jasondashbailey) January 26, 2016
The gaping hole it fills is striking, but writing off reviews and high $ sale as overcorrection doesn't just minimize Parker's achievement-— Jason Bailey (@jasondashbailey) January 26, 2016
-it puts you in league with fucking Wells.— Jason Bailey (@jasondashbailey) January 26, 2016
The thing is, this WILL be an Oscar frontrunner next year. Studios don’t spend this kind of money on movies that they don’t want to push. And we know the Academy loves a period biopic. This is an obvious Oscar movie. And that does not mean it’s not as amazing as everyone is saying, but it is the type of movie the Academy traditionally goes nuts over. So does it deserve a little extra celebration for that reason? Yes, absolutely. It DOES fill a void people are finally taking note of, right at this moment. But this isn’t going to get awards attention because it’s a “black movie.” It’s that “Oscar movies” rarely get made about black characters. (Yes, I can hear you shouting 12 Years a Slave at me, I said rarely, not never.) Awards-givers love stories about historical figures fighting for their rights or their lives, using their brilliant brains to overcome oppression. That’s the story that consistently gets recognized. That story just usually isn’t about men that look like Nate Parker.
Resistance lives in the air in this current moment,” says Parker. “Anyone who sees this film should leave the theater and feel compelled to be a change factor with respect to relations that are taking place in this country. But also, they should be proud to be an American. This country was built on rebellion. So when we talk about American heroes, people that fought against an oppressive force, I think that it’s a no-brainer that Nat Turner exists in that conversation.