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Sundance: 'The Birth of a Nation' takes grand jury and audience prizes

The Sundance Film Festival is in full swing. Follow our ongoing coverage from Park City, Utah until Jan. 31. We're covering the festival's must-see films, talking to the breakout stars and directors about their films, and tracking the issues of the day covered in Sundance movies, including diversity and gun violence and fallen politicians.

'The Birth of a Nation' takes top prizes at Sundance Film Festival

 (George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)

(George Frey / European Pressphoto Agency)

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 on Saturday night.

The movie's big wins came after an effusive set of screenings in Park City, Utah, and a $17.5-million acquisition by Fox Searchlight -- and offered a riposte to an Oscar shortlist that overlooked black talent.

"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.

John Krasinski says he thought long and hard about directing

John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick star in Krasinski's "The Hollars." (Sundance Film Festival)

John Krasinski and Anna Kendrick star in Krasinski's "The Hollars." (Sundance Film Festival)

In a few hours, John Krasinski will premiere his directorial effort, "The Hollars," at Sundance. 

The movie is technically not his filmmaking debut; that honor goes to his David Foster Wallace adaptation, "Brief Interviews With Hideous Men," in Park City, Utah, seven years ago. But Krasinski knows he's come a long way since then.

"In a weird way, I actually think of this movie as my directorial debut," Krasinski said at a New York diner recently. That's in part because he was still deep in his work on "The Office" when he shot that film, and in part because he felt a different sense of ownership over "The Hollars" script.

Sundance mainstay James Strouse ("Grace Is Gone") wrote the screenplay, selling it to Krasinski's production company. The actor initially thought he would just star before deciding to tackle it as a director.

"It's a small story, but it really spoke to me. It deals with family in the most honest way that I've seen," Krasinski said.

"The Hollars" centers on John Hollar (Krasinski), a New York comic book artist and soon-to-be-father who returns to his small Midwestern town with girlfriend Becca (Anna Kendrick) when mother Sally (Margo Martindale) falls ill with a brain tumor. There, he encounters a raft of family members — Richard Jenkins and Sharlto Copley play father and brother — as well as a group of friends and rivals. All are dealing with their own issues, which throws John's challenges into sharper relief.

It's a timeless Sundance theme, this coming-home story, made timely (and common) this year with opening-night film "Other People" and several others. But Krasinski said there was a reason filmmakers kept coming back to this prodigal-son territory.

"There's a celebration to being home but also a sadness," he said of the film, which as of Friday evening had been acquired by Sony Pictures Classics. "It's a push and pull. You're sleeping in your old bed and looking at pictures from high school. But you're not part of the family unit anymore in the same way, and I think that tension is interesting."

Krasinski described what he was aiming for as "an Alexander Payne movie, but maybe slightly less cynical."

And though some of the early reviews (off a media screening) have described the movie as a little too conventional in its beats — "a brand of laughter-through-the-tears humanism [that] is utterly familiar," according to one — Krasinski praised the orientation of Strouse's script.

"Instead of trying to find situations that are inherently funny, he goes for something inherently real," the director said.

The one-time Jim Halpert has been busy lately. Krasinski, 36, has been deep in rehearsals for the Public Theater's "Dry Powder," a finance-world play directed by "Hamilton" director Thomas Kail. (He plays a master of the universe caught in a PR firestorm.) The move is part of a larger post-"Office" career exploration that recently saw him at the center of a war drama ("13 Hours") and ramping up activity at his production company, which includes both a project he hopes Ben Affleck might direct as well as his own helming efforts.

"I don't want to direct just to direct," Krasinski said. "Even if you can get it made, if you don't have a good reason to do it, then you're just saturating the market. I took that seriously on this movie. I didn't want to be a director just because I could, just because I was an actor on a television show."

He said he did run into many of the familiar indie-film obstacles, losing locations and other elements right before shooting — "everything that could go wrong, did go wrong" — but hopes that the film that emerged will be quickly identifiable to anyone who's had to navigate family shortcomings.

"People would ask what made 'The Office' successful. And I always thought the answer was simple: It's your office," he said. "I love the movie 'Brooklyn' [a Sundance entry last year]. It's people bringing back classic storytelling. Where's the twist? There is no twist. It's someone going through what you went through.

"There is something about this movie that I hope does that too, " he continued. "It's the sibling you know; it's about not being the person in life you want to be. It's a dysfunctional-family movie that you can't not connect to."

Video: A chat with Melanie Lynskey and Imogen Poots at the Cinema Café

"Frank and Lola" actress Imogen Poots and "Intervention" actress Melanie Lynskey sit down for a talk with Times reporter Amy Kaufman as part of the Sundance Film Festival's Cinema Café, a daily series of informal chats with special guests.

Cinema Café guests have included Louis C.K., Barbara Kopple, Spike Lee, Roger Corman, Julie Delpy, Nick Hornby and Dave Grohl.

Hugh Jackman gets a Sundance crowd excited about ski jumping

Actors Taron Egerton, left, and Hugh Jackman appear in a scene from "Eddie the Eagle." (20th Century Fox)

Actors Taron Egerton, left, and Hugh Jackman appear in a scene from "Eddie the Eagle." (20th Century Fox)

Hugh Jackman had barely been in the Sundance theater two minutes when he decided to lead the crowd in a chant of "Aussie Aussie Aussie, Oi Oi Oi."

"I mean, it's Australia Day," he said, before adding, improbably, "I've never been to [this] festival."

As Jackman may have quickly surmised, Sundance is underdog heaven. Whether it's the scrappy filmmaker seeking some cash for his killer short or the ticket supplicant looking to get into that unmissable midnight movie, the festival is built for feel-good scrappy stories.

Those tales don't usually come in the form of bespectacled ski jumpers, though.

On Tuesday night at the festival's Library Theater, Sundance and Fox offered a sneak screening of "Eddie the Eagle," a charming crowd-pleaser of a movie about the titular ski-jumper, starring Jackman and Taron Egerton, and directed by Dexter Fletcher (the "Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels" co-star).

"We sat with friends and family and they tell us it's good," Fletcher (wry, voluble) told the audience, the first public group to see it. "But how can we believe them?"

As any sports fan of a Gen-X age or older will remember, Eddie "The Eagle" Edwards became a media sensation for his grit, or badness, or both, at the 1988 Winter Games in Calgary, Canada. Egerton stars as the man whose talent is as thin as his spandex uniform and Jackman as Bronson Peary, his alcoholic has-been coach, who finds his own form of redemption guiding his young (non-) talent, and also gets a chance to make some choice Bo Derek references besides.

Egerton (convincing, likable) plays the real-life Edwards, who from the earliest age is hell-bent on being an Olympian. There’s only one problem -- he's a terrible athlete. Failed attempts in various sports eventually lead him to ski jumping, because a) the Brits haven't fielded a ski jumper at the international level in decades, so competition is slight and b) Edwards is a kamikaze with no fear of broken bones, so why not?

What follows are a series of obstacles in training and qualifying -- the movie is pitched between inspirational drama and fish-out-of-water comedy -- before it arrives at the Games themselves. There, Edwards’ exuberance outshines his more accomplished, dour British teammates,  and his legend begins. (Olympic completists and Helsinki-oriented pop-culture fans, take note: The character of Matti "The Flying Finn" Nykänen makes an appearance, early on as a jerk and later as a kind of wisdom-dispenser, a stoic poet of the inrun.)

The movie, out at the end of February, should play well to sports fans, in part for nostalgia reasons and in part because one rarely gets to see the majestic winter sport of ski jumping on the big screen.

At least majestic is one way to put it. "Have you gone a bit crazy?" Egerton quipped to an audience member before the screening when asked if he'd done a jump himself. Jackman and Egerton thought about it, before realizing there were better ways to traverse a 70-meter ramp. "I kind of wanted to do it until I sat up there on the bench," Jackman said.

The project had been in development for over a decade, Fletcher said, often getting bogged down because the real-life Edwards didn't love the portrayal of him. "He read early drafts and he was a loser and fool and that made him reticent,” Fletcher said. "I didn't want to do that [portrayal]." (Sean Macaulay and Simon Kelton wrote the shooting script; Matthew Vaughn of "Lock, Stock" and "X-Men" fame, produced.)

The significance of the film -- if can one say that about a movie in which men faceplant in skintight clothing -- is of the media sort. Long ahead of the days of viral video, Edwards became accidentally famous, a sports-fan in-joke amid the seriousness of the Olympics. He was a meme before the word meme became a meme.

The screening was designed for locals as part of so-called "Townie Tuesday." It had a suitably spirited feel, and really picked up when a local woman in this mountain-sport town said she was a ski jumper and actually competed against Edwards -- as an 11-year-old.

"He's still devastated you beat him, isn't he?" Jackman joked to her from the podium.

The actor then added that “every parent should show [the movie] to their kids because it means you don't actually have to win to be a winner in life." Then he led one more chant of "Aussie Aussie Aussie" and exited the stage.


Clea DuVall, Melanie Lynskey and Natasha Lyonne bring their friendship onscreen in 'The Intervention'

Jason Ritter, left, Ben Schwartz, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Clea DuVall and Melanie Lynskey of "The Intervention." (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Jason Ritter, left, Ben Schwartz, Natasha Lyonne, Vincent Piazza, Clea DuVall and Melanie Lynskey of "The Intervention." (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

A contemporary take on the reunion in a big house movie – “The Big Chill” was explicitly mentioned as a reference – “The Intervention” is the feature debut as writer-director for Clea DuVall. A Sundance mainstay as an actress, she also appears as part of the film’s charming ensemble, alongside Melanie Lynskey, Cobie Smulders, Ben Schwartz, Alia Shawkat, Natasha Lyonne, Jason Ritter and Vincent Piazza.

In introducing the film’s world premiere on Tuesday as part of Sundance’s U.S. Dramatic competition, DuVall said, “I have been to Sundance many times as an actor, but my first job as an actor was at the Sundance filmmakers’ lab when I was 18. It just feels like such a full-circle, big deal huge thing to be here.” As her voice began to tremble and she seemed overwhelmed in a moment of emotion the audience cheered in support. She paused, pointed to herself and smiled as she said, “I told myself I wouldn’t cry.”

The movie features four couples away at a big family house outside Savannah, Ga., for a weekend away. They are a mix of old friends, siblings, spouses and one new outsider, and the secret purpose of the reunion is so that Annie (Lynskey) and Jessie (DuVall) can stage a “marriage intervention” on Ruby (Smulders). What sounded reasonable enough before they got there quickly becomes a complicated and perhaps misguided idea that brings every couple’s issues to surface.

The movie has a breezy tone overall, but DuVall’s greatest accomplishment may be navigating as a director the tricky shifts in tone she has set for herself as a writer. There are turns toward heartfelt, dramatic emotions among the story’s moments of living-room farce, and the cast likewise all handle it with aplomb.

In the Q&A after the film alongside most of the cast, DuVall spoke how she initially wrote the script thinking someone else would direct it.

“The more I reached out to people the more it became apparent, apparent to me, that I was the only person I really wanted to tell the story,” DuVall said. “It really is coming from a place of loving the process of filmmaking and loving being on sets and working with crews and working with actors.

“I just wanted to become a bigger piece of the puzzle,” she added. “The more I do this the less I become interested in just my part. I want to be a part of all of it.”

Sara Quin of the music group Tegan & Sara was onstage after the film as composer of the film’s music and her sister and bandmate Tegan Quin asked her a question from the audience. “Great film, big fan,” began Tegan, to which Sara responded, “Tegan, hello, big fan.”

DuVall, Lynskey and Lyonne were all together in the 1999 film “But I’m a Cheerleader,” and DuVall noted they have  remained friends. As someone asked a question regarding how their off-screen friendship was reflected in the film, DuVall tried to hand a microphone to Lynskey, who repeatedly handed it back.

“The director is trying to make me answer a question that is clearly for her,” Lynskey eventually said.

Lyonne jumped in to say, “I don’t really remember a ton of workshopping this movie, but I do remember, like, 1998 in your little house in Topanga and I remember we were like, 'Hey, how come actors can’t spend more time like the way musicians can go in the other room and jam?' So we decided to do dramatic readings from Anne Heche’s ‘Call Me Crazy.’ And I feel like that was essentially workshopping to where we are now. A great book.”

“Something like this we wanted to keep fresh, we didn’t want it to feel rehearsed and wanted to keep it really organic,” DuVall added. “We have so much history together, rerouting it into another story that still pulled from that intimacy and that closeness.”

DuVall was also asked whether she had ever participated in an intervention.

“I did, yeah,” she said with a deadpan pause. “It was unsuccessful.”

Time out for studio silliness

There is a lot of pressure at the Sundance Film Festival for films to perform well as they hope to get picked up for broader distribution or just look to make a mark on the festival circuit.

So it's good to have a release valve in the form of the L.A. Times' photo and video studio.

Abigail Spencer from the series "Rectify." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Abigail Spencer from the series "Rectify." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Cast and crew from the film "Spa Night." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Cast and crew from the film "Spa Night." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Director Otto J. Bell of the film "The Eagle Huntress." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Director Otto J. Bell of the film "The Eagle Huntress." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

HBO's 'Jim: The James Foley Story' -- one to watch

Directed by Brian Oakes, "Jim: The James Foley Story," tells the tale of American journalist James Foley, examining his kidnapping and brutal killing by Islamic State militants in 2014.

Why Lena Dunham's sister wanted to be in 'Suited'

Lena Dunham explains how her sister, Grace, came to appear in the documentary "Suited."

Jenni Konner, left, Jason Benjamin and Lena Dunham. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Jenni Konner, left, Jason Benjamin and Lena Dunham. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Chris Rock's 'The Birth of a Nation'?

In 2014, Chris Rock said he had an interest in bringing the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner to the big screen. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

In 2014, Chris Rock said he had an interest in bringing the story of slave rebellion leader Nat Turner to the big screen. (Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

Nate Parker's Nat Turner biopic "Birth of a Nation" is the talk of Sundance this year, inspiring standing ovations and a massive bidding war.

But Parker isn't the only filmmaker who has wanted to bring Turner's story to the big screen. 

After directing the comedy "Top Five," Chris Rock revealed his interest in a Turner project in a November 2014 interview with Los Angeles Times reporter Josh Rottenberg. 

Critics react to 'Certain Women'

Michelle Williams in "Certain Women." (Nicole Rivelli / Sundance Film Festival)

Michelle Williams in "Certain Women." (Nicole Rivelli / Sundance Film Festival)

Elisabeth Moss, Boyd Holbrook and Octavia Spencer find 'The Free World'

From left, Boyd Holbrook, Octavia Spencer, writer/director Jason Lew, Elisabeth Moss and Waleed Zuaiter from the film "The Free World." (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

From left, Boyd Holbrook, Octavia Spencer, writer/director Jason Lew, Elisabeth Moss and Waleed Zuaiter from the film "The Free World." (Jay Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Having its world premiere on Tuesday as part of the U.S. Dramatic competition at Sundance, “The Free World” is the feature debut as writer-director for actor-turned-screenwriter-turned-filmmaker Jason Lew.

In the film, Boyd Holbrook plays Mo Lundy, a man recently released from prison after being exonerated for a crime he did not commit. As he tries to move on with his life, it seems no one wants to let him forget his past. Elisabeth Moss plays Doris, a woman trying to find a way out of an abusive relationship. When the two meet, they instantly see each other in ways no one else does. The film features Octavia Spencer, Sung Kang and Waleed Zuaiter in supporting roles.

Lew’s first screenplay was the 2011 Gus Van Sant romantic drama “Restless.” After that, Lew struggled to figure out what to do next.

“I didn’t have a steamer trunk full of scripts, like here’s my zombie western, here’s my buddy cop movie,” Lew, who lives in Los Angeles, said from Park City, Utah, earlier this week. “So I just did what I did on ‘Restless’: lean into my obsessions, start with characters I find fascinating and see what they have to say to each other.”

What Mo and Doris often have to say to each other is not much, as Holbrook and Moss hold the screen with long silent exchanges. Holbrook turns in a performance that is equal parts physical brawn and interior torment. As with her performance in last year’s “Queen of Earth,” Moss demonstrates a tremendous ability to convey the internal life of a character, conjuring worlds from inside herself.

A section of the film is mostly Holbrook and Moss alone in a sparse apartment, two broken souls each recognizing and respecting what the other has been through.

“I actually like not having a lot of dialogue, although I’ve been very privileged to have some of the best dialogue,” said Moss, in reference to her role on TV’s “Mad Men.” “I love that sort of harking back to the silent-film era when you try to convey emotion without words. For me I find that really challenging and really like it. It feels true to life. I feel like so often we’re not very good at verbalizing how we feel.”

Lew was actually able to drop some dialogue exchanges because everything the characters would have said was already being put across by the actors.

“What was so beautiful was there was a shared language of trauma that they developed between them in looks and stutters and unfinished gestures," Lew said. It actually was very liberating as a writer to realize, ‘Oh, I don’t need that.’”

In one of the film’s boldest, most tense scenes, Doris climbs into a dog crate to hide when two police officers come to Mo’s apartment. It’s a pivotal moment, as they are both in danger and help each through.

“I looked at it and thought, ‘I can fit in that,’” Moss said of the dog crate. “It’s not that big and definitely smaller than you think it’s going to be and getting into one and then turning oneself around is actually kind of difficult. And I’m not particularly claustrophobic, but when you’re in a crate and someone locks it, it doesn’t feel awesome.”

If climbing into a dog crate isn’t the way many people would want to spend their summer, Moss remained upbeat about all of it, saying “I got some crazy, amazing bruises on this shoot that I was really proud of.”

The film takes a turn toward something of a lovers-on-the-run story, but its emotional center remains in the simplicity of a shared understanding.

“Why I got into the movies is I hope to just recognize myself onscreen in a moment that makes me think, maybe the human experience isn’t an isolated one,” Lew said. “When I felt scared and didn’t think anybody felt that way, ‘Oh, maybe someone else feels that way.’ These are the moments I go to the movies for, and we talked about these being moments of recognition in a very unfamiliar story.”

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

A scene from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." (Sundance Film Festival)

A scene from Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation." (Sundance Film Festival)

Huge late-night bidding wars are a staple of Sundance. The debate over diversity has taken center stage in Hollywood.

On Monday night, the two converged.

Some of the most intense buyer jockeying in recent memory went down overnight at the festival as “The Birth of a Nation,” Nate Parker’s buzzed-about film about the Nat Turner slave rebellion, culminated in Fox Searchlight buying world rights for an estimated $17.5 million.

The specialty division outmaneuvered a number of other players including the Weinstein Co. and Netflix, the latter of which the filmmakers passed on despite reports of the company's willingness to pay as much as $20 million.

Parker's film will now get a major Oscar push and a presumptive fall release as it seeks to replicate the rapture of audiences at Sundance and enter the discussion over race in the culture at large.

The purchase almost certainly means that a depressing Oscar-season conversation is less likely to happen next year, at least in the same way. The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences has announced membership changes that may or may not have an effect on voting patterns.

But with "Birth" likely receiving a lot of awards attention, the 2017 Oscars field now has at least one strong contender to ensure it's not so white.

Searchlight has made some big purchases at Sundance over the years, most recently and notably as the central player in the deal to pick up 2015 buzz title “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” for $12 million. But the company reference point that comes to mind most with "Birth" is, of course, “12 Years A Slave,” a movie Searchlight made with Steve McQueen and unveiled to great acclaim at the fall film festivals, before leading it to the Oscar best picture podium and $57 million in domestic box office. (The film took in nearly $190 million worldwide.)

Whether Searchlight can devise a playbook that imitates that success has suddenly become one of the big film questions of the year. The subject matter, setting and huge festival reaction that "12 Years" and "Birth" share could portend big things for the film, though it's also worth noting some distinctions, including a lesser-known cast here and, given the Nat Turner story, a different tone. While "12 Years a Slave" ends with liberation. "Birth" culminates in insurrection, and how that resonates among both black and white audiences will be a cultural indicator as the movie rolls out.

"12 Years" was a singular event — at the time. With an intense discussion now taking place about the lack of award-season movies with black casts -- and a studio that knows how to overcome that challenge -- "Birth" will aim to forge its own path through history.

'Wiener-Dog' director ties 'Welcome to the Dollhouse' into new film

Director Todd Solondz talks about filming "Wiener-Dog," its connections to "Welcome to the Dollhouse" and what he learned from his childhood pets.

Sundance stars stop by the #LATphotostudio

Gabrielle Union, left, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, director Nate Parker, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley from the film "The Birth of A Nation." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Gabrielle Union, left, Aja Naomi King, Armie Hammer, director Nate Parker, Penelope Ann Miller and Jackie Earle Haley from the film "The Birth of A Nation." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Jessie Kahnweiler, star-director-producer of the film "The Skinny." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Jessie Kahnweiler, star-director-producer of the film "The Skinny." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Producer Jenni Konner, left, director Jason Benjamin and producer Lena Dunham from the film "Suited." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Producer Jenni Konner, left, director Jason Benjamin and producer Lena Dunham from the film "Suited." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Naman Ramachandran, left, Q., and Shashank Arora with Werner Herzog. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Naman Ramachandran, left, Q., and Shashank Arora with Werner Herzog. (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Nick Kroll from the movie "Joshy." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Nick Kroll from the movie "Joshy." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

What happens when we capture Don Cheadle, Nick Jonas and Riley Keough in Polaroid-style portraits? See for yourself

Don Cheadle is the star and director of the Miles Davis biopic "Miles Ahead." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Don Cheadle is the star and director of the Miles Davis biopic "Miles Ahead." (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Never mind the chilly corners of Sundance. See how this set of actors and directors warmed up to our photographer, Jay L. Clendenin, during our photo studio session.

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

Armie Hammer, left, and Nate Parker star in "Birth of a Nation." (Sundance Film Festival)

Armie Hammer, left, and Nate Parker star in "Birth of a Nation." (Sundance Film Festival)

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.' 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.

"Birth of a Nation" director Nate Parker

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."

New Spike Lee film on Michael Jackson is all about the music

Michael Jackson’s life was colored by talent, toil and tragedy.

Spike Lee’s new documentary about the late singer doesn’t deal with the tragic and troubling aspects of his life, including allegations of child molestation and drug abuse, but instead focuses on his transition from a member of the Jackson Five to his solo career -- and the work Jackson put in to make it happen.

The film, “Michael Jackson’s Journey from Motown to Off the Wall,” reminds us that superstardom wasn’t a given. By 1975, when the Jackson Five’s Motown contract expired, many in the record business figured the brothers were done. They ended up signing a new contract with Epic/CBS Records as The Jacksons, a deal that also laid the foundation for Michael’s solo career.

The centerpiece of the documentary, which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival this week, is the story of Jackson’s 1979 breakout album “Off the Wall.”

The documentary features interviews with Quincy Jones, Mark Ronson, John Legend and others who break down the technical feats behind the album’s astonishing success -- including four top 10 singles and the No. 1 hit "Don’t Stop 'Til You Get Enough." Lee also interviews a few people outside the music business who speak to Jackson’s work ethic, including Kobe Bryant.

Lee contends that “Off the Wall” is more important than its more famous followup, “Thriller” (the best-selling album of all time), because it established Michael as a superstar in his own right.

The film, which debuts on Showtime on Feb. 5, drew an enthusiastic response from the crowd that packed the MARC Theatre at Sundance. The film also includes rarely seen clips from the Jacksons’ four-night stand at the Forum in Inglewood as part of the group’s Triumph Tour, showcasing the raw electricity and polish of Michael Jackson as a performer.

“It’s the work he did,” Lee said in an interview with the Los Angeles Times when asked to explain the enduring legacy of Jackson’s music. “People are listening to his music, not because of the Grammys he won, it’s the work. The work. That’s what gonna last.”

At a panel discussion after the film, Questlove (Ahmir Khalib Thompson) of the Roots said the film is a means to bring Jackson’s music to younger listeners.

“People automatically think this stuff will translate to the next generation,” he said, adding that he teaches music classes at New York University and students are “really not familiar” with Jackson’s legacy.

“We now have the tools. We have Spotify,” Questlove said. “Make your kids a playlist. Just don’t assume that brilliant stuff on its own will automatically reveal itself to the next generation.”

Lee, who previously did a film called “Bad25,” which was tied to the 25th anniversary of Jackson’s “Bad” album, was asked if a deep look at “Thriller” is next.

“If that happens, I’m good,” he replied. “Trilogy.”

'Los Punks' film premieres at Slamdance Film Festival

Director Angela Boatwright talks about her new documentary, "Los Punks," at the Slamdance Film Festival. The film documents the backyard punk rock scene in East Los Angeles, South Los Angeles and other communities far from the West Hollywood club scene. She's joined by several young people who are part of the L.A. punk rock scene. Slamdance is held alongside the Sundance Film Festival.

Sundance reacts to 'powerful' 'Birth of a Nation'

Nate Parker's highly anticipated Nat Turner biopic has premiered at Sundance to wide acclaim. Among the reports of multiple standing ovations, critics and writers are using such superlatives as "powerful," "epic" and "tour de force" to describe the film, which stars Parker, Gabrielle Union and Armie Hammer. 

Smile, Sundance!

See who stopped by The Times' Sundance photo studio. All photos by The Times photographer Jay L. Clendenin.

Kate Beckinsale (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

Kate Beckinsale (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

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