The Birth of a Nation Sundance
Courtesy of Sundance Film Festival

Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” a brutal, emotionally charged drama about Nat Turner, who led a slave rebellion in 1831, received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at this year’s Sundance Film Festival so far.

The movie, which premiered on Monday afternoon, had the crowd at the Eccles Theater in Park City, Utah, cheering for Parker, who not only stars as Turner, but also directed, produced and wrote the picture.

“I made this film for one reason: creating change agents,” Parker said after the premiere in a Q&A where he brought more than 40 members of the cast and crew onstage. He noted that there are “systems in place that are corrupt and corrupted people, and the legacy of that still lives with us.”

Parker said he spent seven years working to get the film to the big screen. “It was extremely difficult for many reasons,” he said. “The first was our subject matter: anytime we are dealing with our history, specifically slavery, I found that desperately sanitized. There’s a resistance, I’ll say, to dealing with this material.” He said that financiers told him they weren’t sure there was an audience for the story, and that “people overseas don’t want to see people of color” in a movie.

“The Birth of a Nation’s” premiere couldn’t be more timely for Hollywood. The Oscars have come under fire in recent weeks for nominating only white actors for the second consecutive year. With the right distributor — and the big players from Fox Searchlight to Amazon were all in attendance — “The Birth of a Nation” could be the second major Oscars contender to premiere out of Sundance (Kenneth Lonergan’s “Manchester By the Sea,” which debuted on Saturday, sold to Amazon for $10 million and a guarantee of an awards season push).

Although next year’s Oscars are still 13 months away, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where Parker isn’t a strong contender for best actor. At the Q&A, Parker recalled how he told his agent that he wouldn’t take any more jobs as an actor until he got “The Birth of a Nation” made. “I put my own money in,” he said. “I sacrificed everything.” He also remembered some words of wisdom that George Lucas gave him on the set of 2012’s “Red Tails”: “When everyone is telling you something can’t be done,” Parker was told, “that’s how you know you’re on the right track.”

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