Much lauded at the festival, Parker’s epic about the famous 1831 slave rebellion was the subject of a fierce bidding war, with The Weinstein Company, Netflix, and Sony all reportedly offering top dollar. Fox Searchlight won in the end, paying $17.5 million for the film, a Sundance record.
The film deals with one of the pivotal events in American history. Although Nat Turner’s uprising failed, it gave lie to the myth promoted by slave owners that slaves were happy with their lot. The violent reprisals against the rebellion fed into a larger pattern of paranoia among slave owners and resistance among slaves that fueled divisions that led to the Civil War and Emancipation.
Despite the immense historical importance of Turner’s rebellion, one major earlier attempt to tell the story in film form got bogged down in controversy. The proposed adaptation of William Styron’s novel The Confessions of Nat Turner (1967) failed to materialize because of widespread allegations by black critics that Styron had misrepresented Turner’s story. Less contentiously, the African-American director Charles Burnett’s Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property was released in 2003, but didn’t receive wide distribution.
Birth of a Nation, which Parker co-wrote, directed, and stars in, comes at a contentious time in Hollywood, with the industry and the Academy Awards accused of neglecting black talent. One film won’t change that problem, but the Sundance popularity of Birth of a Nation is a step in the right direction.