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Biopic About Nat Turner Is A Success At Sundance Film Festival


The Sundance Film Festival in Utah started out as a venue for low-budget works by independent filmmakers looking for distribution. When major studios bought those films, the purchase price was usually modest. That's still true, but it is changing. And this week, the model was broken. Fox Searchlight paid an astounding $17.5 million for a biopic about Nat Turner, who led a legendary slave rebellion in the early 1800s in Virginia. The film is called "The Birth Of A Nation," directed, written, produced and starring Nate Parker. Justin Chang is the chief film critic for Variety, and he was at that premiere at Sundance. Good morning.

JUSTIN CHANG: Good morning.

MONTAGNE: So OK, this film comes at a time when controversy over a lack of diversity in the film industry is swirling through Hollywood. It sounds like this has become the most talked about film at the festival this year.

CHANG: It certainly has. I think it is very much a movie of the moment. It sort of crystallizes a lot of things, the lack of diversity in the ranks of the industry, which, you know, as we've seen with the Oscars' so-white controversy. And it's also, I think - you know, the title of the film is "The Birth Of A Nation," which is very consciously a reference and sort of a rebuke to D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic of the same title, which is, of course, still notorious for its racist imagery, its heroic portrayal of the Ku Klux Klan. "The Birth Of A Nation," Nate Parker's film, is intended as a corrective to that. It is a story of American slavery told from the perspective of the African-American slaves who endured it.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, talking about - back to the money here in the 21st century, put that $17.5 million in perspective for us. How does it stack up against other films at the Sundance?

CHANG: So $17.5 million for "The Birth Of A Nation" is pretty huge, and I think it is a response and a reflection of the tremendous reception that the film received. People were on their feet. People don't always give the director and the cast and crew a standing ovation, but the response to this film was thunderous.

MONTAGNE: Well, you know, just from the perspective of a film critic, which you are, how good is this film? How would you rate it?

CHANG: I think it's very good indeed. I mean, it is no condescension at all to say that you wouldn't know that this was the work of a first-time filmmaker. Nate Parker, who's an actor who has incredible charisma and presence in films like "Beyond The Lights" and "Arbitrage," this is a passion project that he pursued for seven years. A lot of people are going to be really shaken and moved, as they should be, by the end of the film, which recreates the uprising and the retaliation against - 200 African-Americans were killed. Even though - even people who did not participate in the uprising, just that part of the movie, it almost becomes like a slavery era version of "Braveheart." But I think what's more impressive about the movie even is just how thoughtful it is. Nat Turner was a preacher. He was a man of God. And the movie is kind of tracing the slow and steady process of wrestling with his beliefs and his convictions and coming to the conclusion that he may have to commit murder in order to do this. And it's a really compelling arc that he undergoes in the film. It's not as great a film as "12 Years A Slave," but very few films are. So - but I think it's a pretty remarkable piece of work all the same.

MONTAGNE: Justin Chang is the chief film critic for Variety. He talked to us from Park City, Utah, at the Sundance Film Festival. Thanks very much.

CHANG: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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