The Sundance Film Festival occupies a curious spot in the Hollywood timetable. It falls just before the Oscars, but is attended largely by critics and industry insiders who are already looking to set the narrative for the next year’s race. Even by those standards, though, the buzz from this year’s festival felt serendipitously timed, given that the most-talked-about film was easily The Birth of a Nation, a depiction of an 1831 slave rebellion led by Nat Turner. Also noteworthy: the presence of Netflix and Amazon, whose aggressive bidding indicated a sea change in the world of indie-film distribution.
The Birth of a Nation was made by the actor and first-time filmmaker Nate Parker, who stars as Turner, and its labored development echoed the ongoing discussion about how difficult it is for black filmmakers to break out in Hollywood. An intense bidding war ended with Fox Searchlight paying a record $17.5 million for the rights to distribute it. Is this a classic case of “festival fever,” where hit Sundance movies disappear in wide release after their buzz has dissipated? Or is it the beginning of a larger shift in Hollywood thinking after the meaningful furor around #OscarsSoWhite?
Parker, best known for his performances in films like Beyond the Lights and Red Tails, began writing a screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and eventually took a break from acting to make it himself, scraping together a $10 million budget and shooting the film in 27 days. Parker told The Hollywood Reporter that he’d been “frustrated” with the roles that came his way as an actor, and that while developing The Birth of a Nation (the title is a knowing reference to D.W. Griffith’s landmark, but deeply racist 1915 work of silent cinema) he was frequently told it would be unmarketable to a wide audience.