Arriving 101 years after D.W. Griffith’s notorious cinematic landmark, Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation” was one of Sundance’s most-anticipated premieres, and the reaction to yesterday’s screening bore that out and then some. Even before the movie started, a good chunk of the audience was on their feet, and the ovation picked up again as the credits began to roll, the crowd standing in the dark until director, co-writer and star Nate Parker took the stage. The Twitter insta-reactions to Parker’s chronicle of the life of Nat Turner, who led a bloody revolt against Virginian slave owners in 1831, were overwhelmingly positive, in some cases partaking of the hyperbolic one-upsmanship that often takes Sundance by storm.
One critic immediately called the film better than every 2016 Best Picture nominee, illustrating the extent to which the #OscarsSoWhite controversy has hung over the entire festival like a snowy cloud. While the festival has made concerted efforts to ensure the diversity of its programming, there’s no getting around the fact that Sundance’s audiences, including the film critics among them, are largely white; it would insult the power of Parker’s film to suggest that the response to the film is simply an outpouring of liberal guilt, but it also strains credulity to suggest that it plays no part at all.
In longer reviews, and in conversations last night, reservations started to surface: Parker’s film is passionate and smart, building to an ending that’s deliberately both rousing and disturbing, but it’s also transparently a first film made on a budget, with lapses into hokey magic realism and some seriously underdeveloped characters. “Birth’s” righteousness, its understanding of racism as systemic rot rather than the product of a few bigoted sociopaths, its rare honesty about the power of religious faith as a tool of both enslavement and liberation, produce some extraordinary moments. When Turner, whose gift for preaching is exploited by slaveowners to pacify their abused slaves, is confronted with the accusing faces of his audience, Parker cuts in close enough that their period clothing falls away, and you’re just looking at young black men in the year 2016; suddenly, this is no longer a period piece or a depiction of dead history, but a challenge to anyone who would pretend that their lives aren’t still devalued, their dehumanization perpetuated by other means.
After an all-night bidding war, “The Birth of a Nation” sold to Fox Searchlight for an astonishing reported $17.5 million, destroying the “Little Miss Sunshine’s” $10.5 million Sundance record. (It’s the most ever paid for a finished film in a festival sale ever.) Journalists are already talking up the movie’s Oscar prospects, which is as premature as it is for Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester by the Sea,” and along with the record-setting sale and rapturous response sets a bar impossible for almost any movie to clear. Parker’s “black ‘Braveheart'” is not the typical Sundance movie; it’s a visceral jolt to “Fruitvale’s Station’s” lyrical elegy, or “12 Years a Slave’s” art-house provocation, and the film’s deal with Searchlight — whose offer was reportedly not the highest — doubtless includes an assurance that the film will open in mainstream theaters and play to real crowds. But it’s also important not to let expectations soar out of control, lest the movie industry gain one more pretext to reinforce its ideas about what kinds of movies pay back their investments and which ones don’t.
Reviews of “The Birth of a Nation”
Justin Chang, Variety
It speaks to his ambition that the writer, director, producer and actor Nate Parker chose to title his slavery drama “The Birth of a Nation,” though the film would be a significant achievement by any name. Arriving more than a century after D.W. Griffith’s epic lit up the screen with racist images forever destined to rankle and provoke, this powerfully confrontational account of Nat Turner’s life and the slave rebellion he led in 1831 seeks to purify and reclaim a motion-picture medium that has only just begun to treat America’s “peculiar institution” with anything like the honesty it deserves. If “12 Years a Slave” felt like a breakthrough on that score, then 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.
Bilge Ebiri, Vulture
The rebellion itself is an intense and gruesome affair — at times shot like a historical epic, at times like a horror movie, at times like an action movie, complete with a head-crushing, throat-slicing mêlée near the end. (Though Parker was working with a much smaller budget, the film reminded me of “Braveheart” at more than one point. And it was intriguing to see Mel Gibson’s name pop up in the end-credit thank-yous.) Parker doesn’t shy away from the sheer, unquestioning nature of the violence — he even shows women being slaughtered in their beds. This is discomfiting, grisly stuff, and it’s to the writer-director’s credit that he allows it to remain so without leading us along toward one interpretation or another. It’s an exorcism as much as a historical lesson.
Sean P. Means, Salt Lake Tribune
Nate Parker’s epic drama “The Birth of a Nation” is, to borrow the quote usually attributed to Woodrow Wilson in describing D.W. Griffith’s notoriously racist 1915 movie of the same title, is history written with lightning. Even corralling a production that’s on a par with “Braveheart” or “Spartacus,” Parker puts the weight on himself, and his portrayal of Turner is explosive and heartfelt.
Tim Grierson, Screen Daily
On its surface, “The Birth of a Nation” is a rather traditional biopic that examines how a great figure cemented his place in history. In truth, this aspect of the film is one of its weakest, Parker and cinematographer Elliot Davis making great use of the Savannah, Georgia locales but not always delivering this dramatic material in the most visually arresting ways. There’s a conventionality to the storytelling that can feel as safe as a mediocre Oscar-bait offering, Nat Turner’s journey from preacher to slave leader marked by pedestrian narrative beats. But what’s impressive about “The Birth of a Nation” is the subtext beneath that conventionality.
Todd McCarthy, Hollywood Reporter
Parker conveys the basics of what happened but without the more profound sense of what this incident represented morally, politically and historically. He also severely telescopes Turner’s final weeks on Earth, a period that could have been developed into an exceedingly dramatic chapter of its own. Still, the film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance as to not at all be considered a missed opportunity; far more of the essentials made it into the film than not, its makers’ dedication and minute attention are constantly felt and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that.
Jason Bailey, Flavorwire
When Nate Parker appeared before Monday’s world premiere of “The Birth of a Nation” at the Sundance Film Festival, he introduced it as “a film I’ve been carrying for seven years.” The gifted actor, familiar from “Beyond the Lights,” “Red Tails,” and “Arbitrage,” put everything on the line to make this dramatization of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner; he not only plays Turner, but wrote, directed, and produced the film as well. You can feel his blood pulsing through every frame of “Birth of a Nation,” a vital, stirring, and powerful film by and about people of color — and which arrives like a hand grenade in the midst of a deafeningly loud discussion about why that’s such a rarity in contemporary Hollywood.
Richard Lawson, Vanity Fair
So, a perfect film this is not. But in a strange way, the film’s stumbles, its errant moments of messiness, make it feel all the more vital. The film’s most recent analogue, Steve McQueen’s Oscar-winning “12 Years a Slave,” is a polished, exquisite piece of art, one so measured and formalist that it occasionally risks remoteness. “The Birth of a Nation,” in contrast, is overflowing and immediate, a crescendoing roar from the gut. We need films like this as much as we need the high art, to stir in us something more visceral than intellectual. Since the film premiered here in Park City, many comparisons to “Braveheart” have been bandied about. It’s an apt comparison in some ways — like that film, “The Birth of a Nation” is a crowd-pleasing revolution epic from a passionate auteur — but “Braveheart” is ancient, discrete history compared to the scalding urgency and relevance of Parker’s film. Many people will leave the film feeling inspired and encouraged, others will feel the burning shame of legacy and complicity. But Parker generously calls to all with his rallying cry of a film, a weighty invocation of past bravery that charges its audience with the essential, nation-defining mission of fighting for a better and more just future.
Lanre Bakare, Guardian (3/5 stars)
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. The film’s name, the timing of its premiere and the huge standing ovation it received mean this will be one of the festival’s most talked-about movies. But the film’s often ham-fisted composition will leave many turned off.
THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Absolutely essential, a masterful telling of a story we haven’t told nearly enough. Devastating. #Sundance
— Alissa Wilkinson (@alissamarie) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a stick of cinematic dynamite with a two-hour fuse. Stirring, devastating, and right on time. #Sundance
— Jason Bailey (@jasondashbailey) January 26, 2016
Nat Turner film Birth of a Nation is a tour de force, Sundance style, as ethereally spiritual as it is seethingly angry #nateparker
— Steven Zeitchik (@ZeitchikLAT) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION: A powerful call to remember a legacy and reclaim history. Nate Parker’s performance is astonishing.
— Brian Tallerico (@Brian_Tallerico) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION: Strength of story, strength of history, strength of vision: Nat Parker’s slave rebellion drama testifies. #Sundance
— Peter Howell (@peterhowellfilm) January 26, 2016
The Birth of a Nation is an unflinching and hopeful call to action. Nate Parker’s passion is felt in every scene. #Sundance
— Jordan Raup (@jpraup) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION (2016, Parker, ***1/2) Nat Turner gets a muscular, old-school epic. Righteous and rousing. That last shot’s a classic.
— Sean Burns (@SeanMBurns) January 26, 2016
Prolonged standing ovation for the best narrative feature I’ve seen @sundancefest, actor-director Nate Parker’s powerful Birth of a Nation.
— Anne Thompson (@akstanwyck) January 26, 2016
BIRTH OF A NATION reminds that long before King there was Nat Turner’s struggle. For many this will be reclaimed entirely due to this film
— Jason Gorber (@filmfest_ca) January 26, 2016
BIRTH OF A NATION: Nate Parker has made a BRAVEHEART-style saga for Nat Turner, which was a plus and minus to me. #sundance
— Alison Willmore (@alisonwillmore) January 26, 2016
I wish the filmmaking in BIRTH OF A NATION were worthy of its obvious value, passion, and urgency. but *yikes.* #Sundance
— david ehrlich (@davidehrlich) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION is a must-see & not b/c of its sale price. Much of it is strong. It’s nowhere near 12 YEARS, but that’s an all timer.
— Jordan Hoffman (@jhoffman) January 26, 2016
THE BIRTH OF A NATION: important story (Nat Turner), fairly well told. Last 30 minutes aces. As a movie, mostly unremarkable. #sundance
— Eric D. Snider (@EricDSnider) January 26, 2016
Birth of a Nation is as bold, stirring, unflinching as you’ve heard. Hugely deserved attention for @NateParker.
— jen yamato (@jenyamato) January 26, 2016
Within BIRTH OF A NATION’s straightforward, stirring storytelling is a layered study of faith, as comfort and weapon. Cuts deep. #Sundance16
— Noel Murray (@NoelMu) January 26, 2016
I was so riveted by THE BIRTH OF A NATION, I feel like I’m still shaking. I can’t believe I just watched that at #Sundance.
— Monica Castillo (@mcastimovies) January 26, 2016
BIRTH OF A NATION is alright. I pity it because it seems poised to bear more un-live-up-to-able hype than any debut film in a long time.
— Dan Schindel (@DanSchindel) January 26, 2016
Searing THE BIRTH OF A NATION is particularly compelling when it explores how the Gospels can be powerful subversive language.
— Russ Fischer (@russfischer) January 26, 2016