'The Birth of a Nation' takes top prizes at Sundance as festival enters diversity debate

Capping a historic week at the Sundance Film Festival, Nate Parker's slave-rebellion drama ‎"The Birth of a Nation" took both the grand jury and audience prizes in the U.S. Dramatic competition at the Sundance Film Festival Saturday night.

The movie's big wins came after an effusive set of screenings in Park City and a $17.5 million acquisition by Fox Searchlight -- and were part of a larger riposte by the festival to an Oscar voting body that overlooked people of color.

"Thank you, Sundance, for creating a platform for us to grow in spite of what the rest of Hollywood is doing sometimes," Parker said in accepting the grand jury prize.

Parker's film, in which he stars at the slave-turned-revolutionary Nat Turner, took seven years to get made as its filmmaker raised funds in venues such as Hollywood and the world of sports, a rocky road that culminatd in the Sundance frenzy. "This has been the greatest moment of my career," he said.

But even beyond Parker, it was a triumphant night for people of color. Another multiple winner was "Morris from ‎America," a fish-out-of-water story about a black father-and-son pair in Germany. The movie won the Waldo Salt screenwriting ‎award, for its white writer-director Chad Hartigan, and a special jury prize for individual performance, given to Craig Robinson for playing said dad.

At a moment when diversity has seized the Hollywood conversation, the Sundance prizes and the ten days of film premieres it honored seemed designed to send a message. The festival has always prided itself on an inclusiveness mainstream Hollywood lacked, whether of the ethnic or genre type, and the conversation in Park City over the previous days was often an attempt to solidify that reputation.

On Saturday, that meant recognition for films with black men and women behind the camera.

Taking the U.S. documentary ‎directing prize was "Life, Animated," the story of an autistic child with a Disney connection that was directed by the African American filmmaker  Roger Ross Williams.

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"In the age of Oscars So White and a lack of diversity in Hollywood, I want to thank the [Sundance] Institute for supporting directors like me, who never have a voice‎," he said upon accepting the prize.

Another African American filmmaker, Dawn Porter, won a special jury social-impact prize for her abortion-clinic documentary "Trapped."

Meanwhile, two Asian Americans were also recognized by Sundance juries. Joe Seo won a breakthrough performance prize for his role in "Spa ‎Night," a gay Asian-themed drama set on Los Angeles' Eastside, while Daniel ‎Kwan, along with fellow helmer Daniel Scheinert, scored the U.S. Dramatic directing prize for their polarizing existential fable "Swiss Army Man."

"It's been a roller coaster of a week," Kwan said, nodding to some of the harsh reviews of the Daniel Radcliffe-Paul Dano starrer. "We had a farting dead corpse and somehow we still have this award‎," he said, noting the movie's running gag.

The directing award for "Swiss Army Man"‎ was also one of several surprises at the Saturday night ceremony, which saw a below-the-radar Melanie Lynskey take the‎ top actress prize for her role in "The Intervention," Clea DuVall's married-couple ensemble dramedy. Lynskey looked genuinely shocked as she milled about the ceremony after winning the prize.

In a more expected turn, Elyse Steinberg and Josh Kriegman won the U.S. Documentary grand jury prize for their film "Weiner," an access-heavy tale about the scandal-ridden politician Anthony Weiner that had delighted critics and audiences.

Elsewhere, in world cinema  categories, Rokhsareh Ghaem Maghami's "Sonita‎" -- about a female rapper in Iran -- won the twofer in documentary, taking both grand jury and audience prizes.‎  World Dramatic audience honors‎  went to the Colombian family tale  "Between Sea and Land" while World Dramatic grand jury went to the Israeli film "Sand Storm," set in the country's Bedouin community.

Kerem Sanga‎ "First Girl I Loved," a teen coming-of-age love triangle, nabbed the Next audience award.

The evening saw its share of colorful comments, as when "Nuts!" director Penny Lane (her film is about an animal-derived impotence cure) accepted a special jury prize for editing by saying, "‎I don't know if they noticed, but it's a cartoon about goat testicles."

Host Taika Waititi, the upcoming "Thor" director who had current pic "Hunt for the Wilderpeople" at this year's Sundance, took jibes at the festival and himself throughout the evening. "You want to make low-budget films, you get low-budget hosts," he quipped to the crowd.

And when a special jury documentary writing award went to Robert Greene for his meta-reality exploration "Kate Plays Christine," Greene accepted the prize by half-challenging its legitimacy.‎ "A documentary award for writing," Greene said. "That doesn't even make sense."

But the night belonged to "Birth." The film's victories in both grand jury and audience categories  marks the fourth straight year that a film in U.S. Dramatic pulled off the twofer feat, following "Me and Earl and the Dying Girl," "Whiplash" and "Fruitvale Station" in each of the past three years. Some of those movies went on to strong afterlives ("Whiplash," "Fruitvale"), while another ("Me and Earl"), not so much.

If top Sundance prizes can provide a boost to an independent film, "Birth" may not need such an assist. Widespread media coverage‎ and a supreme timeliness as Hollywood debates the issue of diversity in its ranks will ensure the movie garners plenty of attention; if anything, Searchlight's challenge will be to modulate the hype so it doesn't peak before the critical awards season next fall.

Sundance does have a history of recognizing movies with black talent in front of and behind the camera, most recently with such films as "Fruitvale" and "Middle of Nowhere," which netted director Ava DuVernay the directing prize in 2012.

But this year the emphasis on diversity seemed even more pronounced. The abundance of African American winners -- and the acclaim for and discussion around Parker's film -- underlined Sundance's interest in standing apart from Hollywood on this issue.

As he presented "Birth" the top grand jury prize, Black List founder and jury member Franklin Leonard ‎noted the social climate.‎ "It is both timeless‎," he said of the winning film, "and right on time."


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Fox Searchlight makes big buy for 'The Birth of a Nation'; next year's Oscars may not be so white

Breakout film: Nate Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation' injects itself into diversity debate

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times


9:15 p.m.: This post was updated with new material.

This post originally published at 8:03 p.m.