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  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!