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Nate Parker’s “Birth Of A Nation” (2016) Electrifies Sundance

Tuesday, January 26th, 2016

Here’s a film that’s a real passion project – and really long overdue.

As Dominic Patten reports from the Sundance Film Festival in Deadline, “‘without an honest confrontation, there is no healing.’ That’s from Birth Of A Nation director-producer-star Nate Parker [speaking on January 25th, 2015] onstage at the Sundance Film Festival. In what I have to say was one of the most emotional experiences I’ve had at a movie theater, Parker world premiered what he called his seven-year ‘passion project.’ His telling of the early 19th century slave revolt led by Nat Turner had audience members crying in their seats and jumping to their feet in a prolonged standing ovation at the film’s conclusion.

Potential buyers for the film streamed out of the lobby mere minutes after the cast had left the stage post – screening. Some worked multiple cell phones (with assistants standing nearby fielding calls of their own) in what appeared to be fevered discussions about the awards-bait film. Speaking to the packed Eccles Theater crowd with almost the entire cast beside him after the lights came up, Parker said, ‘I made this movie for one reason only, creating change agents,’ adding, ‘there are still a lot of injustices in our world.’

Sanitizing nothing, from the systematic and brutal torture inflicted by slave owners on the men and women they enslaved to the 48-hour bloody uprising led by Turner depicted in the movie, the film challenges our conceptions of that terrible time in American history and the lives it destroyed.

‘These people thought they were doing good when they were doing bad,’ said Parker of his effort to depict the entirety of the slavery ecosystem. ‘In 2016, that echoes,’ he added, to a roar of approval from the Park City crowd. While comparisons undoubtedly will be made to such films as Best Picture Oscar winner 12 Years A Slave, Parker’s movie has the added visceral impact of a movie like Schindler’s List, or a handful of other well-told films that depict genocide. So often, I wanted to look away at the carnage as the slave owners and their henchmen mutilated their slaves, but in fact I think that this film demands it be looked at with open and honest eyes. That is why the Sundance crowd reacted so strongly to the film Parker made.”

Making the film was an incredibly long struggle for director/star Parker, who vowed in 2013 that this project would be his next film no matter what – and then spent the next two years getting the funding for the film together. As Wikipedia notes, “The Birth of a Nation is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker learned about Turner from an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. He began writing the screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and had a fellowship at a lab under the Sundance Institute.

While he got writing feedback from filmmakers like James Mangold, he was told that a Nat Turner film could not be produced. The Hollywood Reporter said, ‘But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn’t work: Movies with black leads don’t play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn’t work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners.’

After Parker finished his acting role in Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he told his agents he would not continue acting until he had played Nat Turner in a film. He invested $100,000 of his money to hire a production designer and to pay for location scouting in Savannah, Georgia.

He met with multiple financiers, and the first to invest in the film were retired basketball player Michael Finley (who invested in the film The Butler) and active basketball player Tony Parker. Nate Parker eventually brought together 11 groups of investors to finance 60 percent of the $10 million production budget, and producer Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios joined to cover the remaining financing.”

As director/star Parker said of the film, ‘I kind of sold this project to investors and cast on legacy. I honestly think this is a film that could start a conversation that can promote healing and systemic change in our country. There’s so many things that are happening right now in 2015 — 100 years after the original Birth of a Nation [1915] film, here we are. I’d say that is what I hope sets my film apart, is that it’s relevant now — that people will talk about this film with the specific intention of change.’

And here’s more good news, from Mike Fleming Jr. of Deadline: “In a record-breaking deal for the Sundance Film Festival, Fox Searchlight is wrapping up a deal to pay around $17.5 million to acquire world rights for The Birth Of A Nation. The deal’s still being finalized, but this brings to a close one of the most freewheeling all-night bidding battles ever seen here in Park City.

It also births a major new filmmaking voice in Nate Parker, who directed and stars in a film he scripted and produced. The deal, which calls for a widescreen commitment in awards season, far surpasses precedent-setting Sundance acquisitions like the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008. So it looks like this film might actually receive the widespread theatrical release it so clearly deserves.

Sony, Universal, TWC, Netflix, Warner Bros, Paramount, Lionsgate and Fox Searchlight were all in the mix early Monday evening, chasing a world rights deal with bids that started around $12 million. At a time when focus has been on a lack of diversity in Oscar nominees for a second straight year, The Birth Of A Nation was viewed by potential buyers as having true awards potential [. . .]

The film marks the feature directorial debut of Parker, an actor who has directed several short films and been part of the ensemble casts of films including The Great Debaters, The Secret Life Of Bees, Red Tails and Ain’t Them Bodies Saints. He will leave the mountain as a major filmmaker to watch [emphasis added]“

The response to D.W. Griffith’s appalling Birth of A Nation we’ve been waiting for - kudos to Nate Parker!

The Black Film Center/Archive – Richard E. Norman Collection

Monday, April 20th, 2015

More essential films saved from destruction.

As The Indiana University – Bloomington Newsroom reports, “The Black Film Center/Archive will produce a new finding aid for the collection of Richard E. Norman, a pioneer in development of films for African-American audiences. Project staff, working in partnership with IU Libraries Digital Collections Services, will enhance this online resource with over 20,000 digitized items from the archive.

‘The Norman Collection constitutes a unique resource for the study of the formation of American cinema in general and the history of race films in particular,’ said Michael T. Martin, director of the Black Film Center/Archive and a professor of American studies and of communication and culture in The Media School. ‘Arguably, of no less importance to both histories as the Lincoln Motion Picture Co. and Micheaux Picture Corp. are, this grant ensures the preservation and access of our Norman holdings for current and future generations of researchers, film historians and the public, as it will be to the teaching mission of Indiana University.’

In the early 1900s, Norman, a southern-born white filmmaker, was among a small group of so-called race filmmakers who set out to produce black-oriented pictures to counteract the racist caricatures that had dominated cinema from its inception.

Norman began his filmmaking career in the Midwest before relocating his Norman Film Studios to Jacksonville, Fla., where from 1919 to 1928 he produced silent feature films featuring leading black actors and actresses. He cast his actors in positive roles such as a banker, businessman and cowboy, and not in demeaning roles often given to African Americans by Hollywood. In his 1926 feature, The Flying Ace, he notably depicted an African-American pilot in the U.S. Armed Forces — an impossible career in reality for a black man until 1940.

Apart from short fragments, all but one of Norman’s films are now lost, making the collection at IU even more important. His lone surviving film, “The Flying Ace,” was restored by the Library of Congress in 2010 and screened at IU in 2013 as part of the ‘Regeneration in Digital Contexts: Early Black Film’ conference.

Norman’s archive at IU — an extensive collection of his personal and professional correspondence, detailed theatrical distribution records, original shooting scripts and other records — is among the most important resources for the study of early African-American film and movie-going culture from 1912 to 1954. Norman ceased film production with the advent of the sound era, but he remained active in the motion picture industry as a distributor and owner of theaters.

‘Since the 2013 publication of Barbara Tepa Lupack’s scholarly biography on Norman, we’ve seen a surge of research interest in Norman’s collection from scholars internationally,’ said Brian Graney, archivist of the Black Film Center/Archive and principal investigator on the Norman project. ‘This support from NEH will greatly increase the discoverability of Norman’s records and make them readily available as digital resources for remote research and new forms of scholarship on African-American movie-going.’

The collection was donated by Norman’s son, Capt. Richard E. Norman Jr., to the Black Film Center/Archive under its founding director Phyllis Klotman, emeritus professor of African American and African diaspora studies, who died late last month.”

Fascinating history – read more by clicking here, or on the image above.

Lost Speech by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Found — Listen Here

Monday, January 20th, 2014

A lost speech from 1962 by Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. has been discovered; both on audiotape, and the text.

On Martin Luther King Day, it’s both appropriate and fitting that a newly discovered speech by Dr. King has been released to the public, and presented in a video that allows one to follow along with Dr. King’s speech, as an audio track, while also viewing the text he is reading. As Ashley Hupfl reports in USA Today, “the New York State Museum has unearthed a long-lost audio recording of a 1962 speech from the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., state officials announced Monday. An intern found the recording as museum staff worked on digitizing thousands of audio and video recordings in its collection, [and it] has been posted to the museum’s website.

‘This is a remarkable treasure,’ state Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said in a statement. ‘More than 50 years later, Dr. King’s voice has come back to life.’ The speech was recorded Sept. 12, 1962, at the Park-Sheraton Hotel in New York City, where Gov. Nelson Rockefeller had convened his state Civil War Centennial Commission. It was delivered at a dinner celebrating the 100-year anniversary of the preliminary Emancipation Proclamation [. . .]

During the talk, King previewed many of the themes he would return to the following year in his ‘Letter from a Birmingham Jail’ and his ‘I Have a Dream’ speech at the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington. The online exhibit includes a manuscript of the speech and the original event program. The audio is the only known recording of the 1962 address.”

You can hear, and see, the entire text by clicking on the link above; this is a find of inestimable importance.

For more free articles and videos, visit my website at wheelerwinstondixon.com

About the Author

Wheeler Winston Dixon

Wheeler Winston Dixon, Ryan Professor of Film Studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, is an internationally recognized scholar and writer of film history, theory and criticism. He is the author of thirty books and more than 100 articles on film, and appears regularly in national media outlets discussing film and culture trends. Frame by Frame is a collection of his thoughts on a number of those topics. All comments by Dixon on this blog are his own opinions.

In The National News

Wheeler Winston Dixon has been quoted by The New Yorker, The New York Times, the BBC, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, US News and World Report, The Boston Globe, Entertainment Weekly, The Los Angeles Times, NPR, The PBS Newshour, USA Today and other national media outlets on digital cinema, film and related topics - see the UNL newsroom at http://news.unl.edu/news-releases/1/ for more details.

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