It’s interesting that Nate Parker decided to call his film – a film he’s been trying to get made for seven years, that is now the hottest film at the Sundance Film Festival – The Birth of a Nation. As you probably know, there’s another movie with that title: D.W. Griffth’s landmark 1915 film that helped revolutionize how movies were made… a movie that is also impossibly racist. That The Birth of a Nation portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as heroes against African Americans, who were in turn portrayed as monsters. It’s a vile film, but one scholars have a hard time letting go of because of its technical genius. Despite its message, the film still lingers.
It’s hard to ignore that Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation just sold at Sundance to Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million – close to the record – which was something that happened just shortly before I saw the film. At its premiere Monday evening (I couldn’t attend because of a conflict) the film was met with a thunderous standing ovation. This is a film that has “hype.” Hype can be good — I can think of 17.5 million reasons why — but hype can also corrode a viewer’s brain with insane expectations. People will now have The Birth of a Nation targeted as a “must see.” And that’s great, but that’s also a lot to live up to.
The Birth of a Nation is a good movie, mostly. It’s certainly topical in this world we live in of police shootings and racial injustice. I think a movie like The Birth of a Nation deserves to be front and center in the discussion of our current social climate. And with Fox Searchlight’s investment, we will be hearing about this film for the entirety of 2016 and, most likely, leading up to the Oscars in 2017.
12 Years a Slave was also a Fox Searchlight film and that movie won Best Picture two years ago. The Birth of a Nation will undoubtedly be compared to 12 Years a Slave considering its subject matter, but that’s not particularly fair. These are two very different movies. (And two very different directors. Nate Parker did a really fine job with The Birth of a Nation, but there are a couple of choices that I have questions about – particularly some supernatural imagery – while Steve McQueen is one of the best directors working today.)
Based on true events, The Birth of a Nation introduces us to Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a slave and preacher for a plantation owner named Samuel (Armie Hammer). Samuel seems nice enough at first – at least “nice” for a) a terrible human being who owns other human beings and b) compared with other plantation owners. Nat and Samuel even seem to be kind of, sort of friendly at times, with Samuel often having to help Nat out of trouble when confronted with even worse people.
At first, I thought this might be going the 12 Years a Slave route, with Hammer playing the Benedict Cumberbatch role of the “nice by comparison” slave owner, before introducing an even worse monster. But in The Birth of a Nation, Samuel’s excessive drinking and the simmering failure of his plantation sparks a terrible mean streak in him. Events escalate, which leads Nat to organize an uprising of his fellow slaves to rebel against their owners.
The Birth of a Nation is brutal in its depiction of how slaves are treated. We watch one slave on a hunger strike have his front teeth chiseled out so that he can be force-fed. A couple of scenes are almost impossible to watch. But then, in its last half hour, as the uprising is in full force, the film morphs into an all out mêlée of blood, guts, and decapitated heads. It’s powerful imagery, but The Birth of a Nation is much more important than it is “good.” (Even though I do think it’s very good, its importance outshines its merit.)
I suspect Fox Searchlight won’t have too hard of a time recouping that $17.5 million. The Birth of a Nation seems destined to be a commercial success: It tells an important story, it will get a lot of attention, it has great performances, it has action, and it has a lot of religion, which is another key selling point for many viewers. And definitely not most importantly, but a nice side effect: maybe now D.W. Griffith’s film can fade into oblivion.
Mike Ryan lives in New York City and has written for The Huffington Post, Wired, Vanity Fair and New York magazine. He is senior entertainment writer at Uproxx. You can contact him directly on Twitter.