Hello from Park City, Utah, where industry hopefuls shake hands, promising executives hand out business cards, and Nate Parker's The Birth of a Nation has taken the Sundance Film Festival by storm. After its premiere, Birth got a record setting purchase from Fox Searchlight with an purchase of a staggering $17.5 million. I missed the actual premiere (along with around 200-300 other hopefuls standing outside the theater), and you better believe after the big news: the second screening was a madhouse.
See, when a screening gets any kind of mainstream press before playing at an acquisitions festival like Sundance, that screening becomes more or less from hell. Waitlists are aimless seas of hopefuls more or less window shopping. Ticket holders cross their fingers for attendance or their money back. Even those with full access passes hold their breath. The online waitlist filled in less than five minutes. The actual line formed up and down and all around the theater. I don't know if any of the waitlist people that valiantly reserved their spot even made it in. As for me? A good magician never reveals his secrets. But if you've ever played six degrees of Kevin Bacon— well, I got in, is the point.
According to legend, the premier received a standing ovation before and after the screening. Not too different for this screening, nor was the white :: non white ratio in the audience. Such is Park City, Utah. Whiteness exists on and off the mountain caps surrounding us here.
So did the movie deserve the ovation?
It's going to be a while before the movie comes out, as one can assume Parker and Fox Searchlight are aiming for an Oscar push at the end of this coming year. So, I won't spoil much, and I'm sure you'll find out eventually. (If you're dying to know the idea of what happens in the film, then I encourage you to simply google Nat Turner.) There's nothing I can say that wouldn't be said of any other racial historical drama about subjects of this matter (your correspondent here reminding you of the currently trending #OscarsSoWhite). As per what makes it objectively "good," take your pick: powerful performance, good writing, deep thematic messages that transcend generational difference, tactful narrative liberties....
Speaking of liberties: What Nat Turner did for the black community is staggering. The argument for Turner as one of the most important figures in 19th century American history is not an exaggeration. The Birth of a Nation is a movie that will eventually be talked about at great lengths for multiple reasons. I also really, truly do praise Parker's performance, as well as the performance of Armie Hamer, whom I didn't think I'd ever see as anyone other than the Winklevi twins.
But did the movie deserve the ovation? A crowd is susceptible to hive mind mentality, certainly, and no one wants to pan a movie they get a year jump start on watching when they know the short term significance of it. But consider: The picture, hotly touted and bid over by major production companies, hardly veils an attempt to cash in on a taboo subject currently hot off the press. Not to say that's why Parker made it, but maybe how a director would want to sell it, from an acquisitions perspective.
Let's maybe answer that question with another question: Is there a systemic influence in Parker's decision to sell where he sold? He takes Fox Searchlight's offer, rather than the (reportedly) higher offers provided by Netflix and Amazon. Fox and Fox Searchlight happen to be Academy Award winning powerhouses. From the outside looking in, it looks like Parker has every intention to turn a system that currently faces heavy criticism w/r/t its racism, and have them hand Parker, a black activist and filmmaker, a top prize, and make them do it with self-congratulatory smiles on their faces. 2016's Oscars and the #OscarsSoWhite buzz are now all set up to get an exciting conclusion in 2017 with Parker at the rebellion's head.
There's a kind of irony-on-irony-on-irony I feel, here, writing about blackness in cinema while at a coffee shop in Park City, Utah, after watching a powerful slave revolution movie while sitting in between two 60-plus-year-old ski mom's ooo-ing and aah-ing at the heroism of Nat Turner. It's all a little much. You'll see the movie next winter, and you'll like it, I'm sure. But the conversation about the Oscar's whiteness shouldn't be starting, or ending, here.