Sundance Dispatch 3: The stunning 'Birth of a Nation' breaks records and takes over Sundance


Has there been a bigger sensation than Nate Parker’s The Birth of a Nation in the recent history of Sundance? The exuberant premiere at the Eccles Monday night started with a standing ovation as soon as Parker took the stage to introduce the film he wrote, directed and stars in; and ended with a rapturous, extended one that brought the audience up to their feet through the credits and beyond. This is my fourth year in Sundance and I have never seen a reaction like this one. Even more impressive, Sundance veterans who have been coming to the festival for a decade or two testify the same. What we witnessed on Monday was surely a response towards an undeniably powerful film. But there was also an irrefutable release of emotions in the air, that were on the verge of exploding in the wake of recent debates around lack of diversity in Hollywood, and consequently, the Oscars. This statement in no way should be taken as a reductive blow to Nate Parker’s artistic achievement. His film is one of the best that screened in U.S. Dramatic Competition (and after Monday, the likely winner of the category, as well as the frontrunner for the Audience Award.) Parker has convincingly pulled off a polished and authoritative work, charged by searing performances by his ensemble of actors. Yet, its timely arrival that filled a painful void is also a fact that cannot be overlooked. Its record-breaking sale to Fox Searchlight at $17.5 million (the biggest Sundance sale ever) is all the more notable for it.

In his historical epic The Birth of a Nation (a title that immediately counters D. W. Griffith’s troubling, racist film with the same name), Parker tells the story of Nat Turner, who led an infamous slave rebellion and uprising in the early 1830s. The story starts from his childhood when he was taught the Bible by his white master. Growing up as friends with his master’s son only to be owned by him later, Nat slowly but surely grows into his leadership shoes as he sees his people robbed of their dignity and humanity. Parker carefully infuses the first half of his story with a softer, almost spiritual attitude. This is wise, as it puts us on the same journey as Nat Turner, who deceptively had it “better” than most of the other slaves around him. But once he starts seeing through the deception loud and clear–and that arrives alongside the increasing brutality of master Samuel Turner (Armie Hammer)–the film’s tone shifts gears towards a darker, more brutal nature where Parker makes sure every stolen piece of human pride is wholly felt by the audience. The Birth of a Nation will drive many inevitable comparisons to 12 Years A Slave for sure, but perhaps more so to Braveheart with its rebellious battles and rage. During the post screening discussion–where a big lineup of collaborators were invited onstage–Parker encouraged the audience to look around and identify all the injustices around them, whether racial, gender or sexual-orientation based. “Hopefully all of us can leave and feel a little different and be more intentional about how we address those injustices, small or large,” he said.

Two additional movies I was able to see on Saturday came from a female director whose previous work I loved and a profoundly New York storyteller who understands the hurdles of real estate in the city. So Yong Kim’s Lovesong, which tells the story of a longtime friendship and unpronounced love between Mindy (Jena Malone) and Sarah (Riley Keough), resonated through its delicately modest storytelling. I wish the story itself had more substance–it plays like a stretched-out tease or foreplay for something that doesn’t quite arrive–yet it was still carried by therich performances of the two leads. Ira Sachs’ family drama Little Men–one of the best I’ve seen in Sundance so far–depicts a friendship between two children/young teenagers whose familial relationship gets threatened by the real estate battle between their parents. Sachs’ unassuming, elegant story on urban gentrification is as wonderful as his previous Love Is Strange, and its perfect thematic companion. The performance of the young actor Theo Thaplitz, who plays the mature-beyond-his-years teen Jake, is especially a standout. A scene between Thaplitz and Mauricia Bustamante (who plays his acting teacher) in which they practice an acting exercise involving reacting to/countering one another is an instant classic that’s being talked at length about here in Park City.

Monday night continued with parties scattered across and around the town’s historic Main Street. My first stop was a party for the documentary Richard Linklater: Dream is Destiny, at Richard Linklater’s remote condo. The night continued with the Little Men party, followed by another private condo event for the documentary collective/visual journalism film unit “Field of Vision” (created by Laura Poitras, AJ Schnack and Charlotte Cook.) Across town, the talk was predictably all about The Birth of a Nation while the (all-night) negotiations were still continuing for the film’s record-breaking sale.

Next morning, I was up bright and early to catch the 8:30 am screening of one of my most anticipated titles: Robert Greene’s Kate Plays Christine (U.S. Documentary Competition). As he did with his remarkable Actress, the non-fiction filmmaker Greene applies his expertise in blurring the lines between fact and fiction in his latest work. Researching the details of the Christine Chubbuck story–the Florida news anchor who shot herself on live TV in 1974–Greene brilliantly explores identity through roleplay with his partner-in-crime Kate Lyn Sheil. She talks to people with a memory of the tragedy and transforms herself physically to look more like Christine Chubbuck with the hopes of re-enacting–and thus, understanding–Chubbuck’s act. Kate Plays Christine starts as a gripping exercise on a specific subject, yet reaches far beyond its immediate surroundings by giving the viewer enough to ponder on human psychology.

The rest of Tuesday, my schedule was unfortunately taken over by two disappointments. First was Matt Ross’ Captain Fantastic starring Viggo Mortensen, telling the story of a liberal family living off the grid by their own rules until they come at odds with societal expectations. I love the idea of a heartwarming film that aims to take down the corporate-run America, yet Captain Fantastic’s high-minded ambitions are sabotaged by an over-simplified script, which ended up making a stronger case for the system it tries to stick it to. Meera Menon’s Equity–a female-directed, written and produced Wall Street thriller with women in lead roles–was also weighed down by a clumsy script, despite a dedicated cast (with “Breaking Bad”’s Anna Gunn in the lead) and a fascinating story of financial corruption. The film was recently picked up by Sony Pictures Classics and could become an art-house hit (especially given its uniquely female-driven narrative). I just wish what we saw was as tightly constructed and urgent feeling as Margin Call, which it draws comparisons to.

Tuesday night ended with the annual blogger party where many fellow writers and critics, now visibly showing signs of exhaustion, took a night off screenings to catch their breath and catch up with each other. Many are leaving town today, but in reality, the festival is only halfway through.