There's good timing. There's great timing. Then there's "The Birth of a Nation" at Sundance.
Nate Parker's dramatization of Nat Turner's 1831 slave rebellion premiered Monday afternoon at the festival to a rapturous response--there was a standing ovation before the movie even began--and continued to spill out after the screening and into the afterparty.
And for good reason. The film arrives in the heat of multiple discussions about race in America, capped in Hollywood by the percolating #OscarsSoWhite movement.
The result of seven years of sweat by Parker (who also wrote, stars and serves as a producer), "Nation" is inspired by a true story that saw a small group of slaves, starting out with rudimentary weapons, eventually take on white slaveowners and their families, killing about 60 of them.
Much of the film has a quiet, almost contemplative vibe, as Turner and his wife Cherry (Aja Naomi King ) endure an ever-so-slightly better life than their fellow slaves, with the former a preacher for the seemingly more understanding slaveowner Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer). As treatment of Nat deteriorates and revolution foments, the movie begins to take on a sharper edge, building to the bloody conclusion.
Indeed, the film's final chapter offers a violent frankness that could push buttons, infused, as it is, with a spirit of revenge. But just as there will be those who frame it as an angry riposte to black injustice, the movie could also be viewed as a rhetorical attempt to jolt viewers into debate--it is titled "The Birth of a Nation," after all.
"I made this film for one reason: with the hope of creating change agents," the filmmaker said as he took the stage after the screening with dozens of the cast and crew. "There were systems in place that were corrupt and corrupted people...and the legacy of that still lives with us," he added. He added that he offered the movie as a corrective to the "desperately sanitized" tales of the antebellum south.
Speaking with a force of conviction, Parker said the lessons apply even to those ostensibly fighting for the 21st-century cause of equality.
"Usually when we see films about slavery it paints the oppressor as a sociopath so people can check out and say 'that not like me,'" Parker said pointedly, refering to Hammer's character. "The reality is there are people in their benevolence who thought they were doing good even though they were doing bad. And in 2016 I think that echoes."
Parts of "Birth" may evoke comparisons to "12 Years a Slave" and "Django Unchained," even though Parker began working on this film long before either of those movies reached the screen. In any event, where "Django" is clearly situated in the world of revenge fantasy, this aim for something far more dramatic and historical.
How the movie, which is seeking distribution at Sundance, will play in the wider world remains to be seen. But if the crowd Monday—which featured some the most diverse audience members at the festival--is any indication, whoever buys the movie will have little to fear.
Before each screening at Sundance, a festival rep introduces the filmmaker -- typically a pro forma matter. But when John Cooper, the festival's director, brought Nate Parker onto the stage, the crowd rose to their feet to give the 36-year-old a round of applause. That standing ovation resumed the instant the film concluded, with filmgoers getting out of their seats to cheer through the credits until Parker returned on stage for a Q&A session.
Each audience member who asked a question seemed deeply moved, beginning with the first woman who raised her hand to ask: "This film carries a lot of responsibility; how can we help you carry it?"
Commentators were enthused too; Variety's Ramin Setoodeh wrote that "Although next year’s Oscars are still 13 months away, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Parker isn’t a strong contender for best actor."
As the crowd exited the Eccles, audiences members were handed a beanie that touted the promotional hashtag: #NatTurnerIsComing. Some filmgoers sported the caps at the after party, where the mood was celebratory and even had a sense of gravitas, as both white and black Hollywood insiders evinced a feeling they'd completed a mission.
Parker had solid acting career for years. He was last seen in "Beyond the Lights," the 2014 romantic drama in which he played a police officer who heroically convinces a pop star not to commit suicide. He's also had roles in the Liam Neeson action thriller "Non-Stop" and the ensemble drama "The Great Debaters."
But he decided to leave acting behind to pursue "Birth." The movie nearly fell apart several months before production as nervous investors pulled their money, and many cited tropes about black stars overseas. But Parker stayed with it, working financiers around the country to raise the final funds for the budget, which is in the $8-$10 million range.
Asked at the screening why he remained undeterred, Parker offered a quote from George Lucas, in whose "Red Tails" he starred. "When everybody is telling you something can't be done," the director said, "that's when you know you're on the right track."