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Is 'The Birth Of A Nation' The Film to Heal The Oscars Diversity Wounds?

27/01/2016 17:51 GMT | Updated 27/01/2017 10:12 GMT

If you tipped your head in the right direction on Monday evening you probably heard a whoosh of applause coming all the way from the Eccles Theatre at this year's Sundance Festival, where the first of three standing ovations greeted the premiere screening of The Birth of a Nation.

As well as a legitimate recognition of a job well done by first-time director Nate Parker, this was undoubtedly a show of relief, and hope, that, during a period when the harsh spotlight of accountability has been shone on the film industry and its offerings, here could be the antidote to those diversity injustices of which Will Smith and wife are just the highest-profile critics.

No doubt the rapturous reception for the film has been influenced by the unease of the past few weeks, which have seen everybody of every colour in the industry, asked for their views on the topics raised as soon as the all-white Oscar nominations list was announced.

But I don't think those executives wandering around Sundance with wallets are as sentimental as the rest of us. They wouldn't be parting with all this cash to ease their consciences, if they didn't sniff the zeitgeist and realise that there is a real hunger for films that tell everyone's stories.

Of course, like 12 Years a Slave, Tarantino's Django Unchained and Spielberg's Amistad, The Birth of a Nation is another lavish treatment of American slavery and emancipation, evidence that Hollywood continues to be more interested in historical stories of African-American life than modern-day ones. Nate Parker, after seven years of toil and $100,000 of his own money has brought to the screen the remarkable true story of Nat Turner, a black slave turned preacher turned rebellion leader of 1831.

Before the film had run its opening titles, there were murmurings of interest from the distributors swarming around Utah this week, and now it's been reported that Fox Searchlight have proffered $17.5million for the film, a record sum for the festival. Producers have revealed this wasn't even the highest offer they received, but they were no doubt influenced by the prospect of a theatrical release, and the thought of all those freshly progressive eyeballs belonging to the Academy this time next year.

So, why all the interest? Because, as well as bringing his own colourful spectacle to the screen, Nate Parker has wilfully turned one of the cinema's historically most divisive chapters on its head. The original version of Birth of a Nation was made in 1915, when director DW Griffith pulled out all the stops for his version of an antebellum Deep South -depicting the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic force, so much so that the film, a cinema record-breaker for its time despite some protests at the content, was used as a recruiting device for the KKK, and helped stir up racial hatred. Griffith showed them valiantly withstanding the onslaught of black, wild, feral, characters, many of whom were white actors in the now abhorrent blackface.

In the new film, Nate Parker has instead given Turner, whom he also plays on screen, a filled-out context, a childhood that is surprisingly happy as a slave on a farm near Virginia, a rite of passage as he learns the teachings of the Bible and felt called upon to spread his message, a sense of growing confusion as he witnesses brutality and injustice that he can't equate with all that he has learned, and, finally, the realisation that rebellion is the only fitting avenue to right these ills.

More subtly, in contrast with Fox Searchlight's previous triumph Twelve Years A Slave, Parker hasn't made his slaveowners all villainous. Armie Hammer, as Turner's master Sam, is at first benevolent, even encouraging, before his own transformation sheds telling light on how little agency the time allowed even a prosperous white man. It is this kind of subtlety that will hopefully allow this film to be seen as a complex piece of film-making in its own right, not just the token of hope with which it is no doubt being held up today by Sundance's finest.