You didn’t have to be at Park City’s Eccles Theater for the world premiere of Nate Parker’s powerful "The Birth of a Nation" to know that the competition for the film would be fierce. The eruption of praise on social media for his portrait of Nat Turner’s 1831 slave rebellion following the screening Monday afternoon was indication enough. The Weinstein Company, Netflix, and Fox Searchlight entered a bidding war for the film, with Searchlight’s landing the movie for a reported $17.5 million for worldwide rights.
Parker ("The Great Debaters," "Beyond the Lights"), who wrote, directed, and stars as Turner, spoke eloquently — after a prolonged standing ovation — about the challenges of making his seven-year passion project without succumbing to the pressure to sanitize the material. "I made this movie for one reason only, creating change agents," said Parker, who put his acting career on hold and eventually marshaled enough supporters to see the project through without sacrificing his vision. (As George Lucas told him, if someone tells you it can’t be done, you’re on the right track.)
Joined on stage by his sprawling ensemble, which includes Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, and Jackie Earle Haley, Parker noted that "it takes a village to make a film." "It sucked," Hammer added, with regard to the production. "It was not fun. Everyone felt the emotional subject matter. It was a heavy burden."
The movie deserves the effusive praise from critics. The actor-writer-director delivered a seamless, well-mounted, powerful period drama executed with discipline on a modest budget with a superb acting ensemble and a searing finale that had the audience in tears and on its feet through the credits until Parker returned to the Eccles stage.
Parker’s tenacity paid off: the $17.5 million "The Birth of a Nation" deal to a theatrical distributor with Oscar bonafides easily tops the fest’s most buzzy acquisition to date, Amazon’s $10 million-plus pickup of Kenneth Lonergan’s "Manchester by the Sea." WME is handling the sale.
Read early reviews of the film from around the web below. It looks like the road to Oscar 2017 has begun.
Justin Chang, Variety:
"If ’12 Years a Slave’ felt like a breakthrough… Parker’s more conventionally told but still searingly impressive debut feature pushes the conversation further still: A biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror, it builds to a brutal finale that will stir deep emotion and inevitable unease. But the film is perhaps even more accomplished as a theological provocation, one that grapples fearlessly with the intense spiritual convictions that drove Turner to do what he had previously considered unthinkable."
Todd McCarthy, The Hollywood Reporter:
"A labor of love pursued by Parker for seven years, the film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also underlining the religious underpinnings of Turner’s justifications for his assaults on slaveholders. It’s a film very much in tune with the current state of heightened racial friction and one that will assuredly generate a great deal of media attention, and probably controversy, more for cultural and political, rather than artistic, reasons; creatively, it’s a far cry better than Stanley Kramer, but it’s no ‘Son of Saul’ either."
Brian Tallerico, RogerEbert.com:
"Most of all, Parker is absolutely phenomenal, portraying Turner as a man whose rage and need for revolution simmered inside him, spurred on not only by what he saw but a Bible that also conveyed the injustice of the world around him. Parker’s take on Turner is more internal than a lot of actors would have gone or a lot of directors would have crafted — he is a man who watches, and the way he uses scripture to convey his increasing rage in the midsection of the film is captivating."
Lanre Bakare, The Guardian:
"[M]ostly, the film is heavy-handed, with subtlety nowhere to be found. The horrors that Turner endures are signposted with soaring music. The focus on Turner is all-encompassing, with other characters, including his wife (Aja Naomi King) and other rebels, feeling thin and unconvincing. When the revolt does come — a rebellion that saw five dozen slave owners and their families killed — Parker doesn’t leave anything to the imagination. Heads are crushed, stoved in and chopped off. Bodies are burned, teeth are broken. It’s a cathartic blood-letting that recalls the huff and puff of "Braveheart," but instead of Mel Gibson splattering the English, it’s Parker hacking at the slave owners."
Sandy Cohen, The Associated Press:
"’The Birth of a Nation’ is a beautiful, painful and powerful film that juxtaposes pastoral settings with inhumane violence. Elliot Davis’ cinematography captures the ethereal natural settings of the American south and the heartbreaking brutality of slavery… Parker embodies Turner’s compassion and heart, on both sides of the camera. As Turner, his eyes communicate a deep understanding of human nature. As the writer, director and producer of the film, he channels that understanding into a moving work of art."