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Repurposing The Birth Of A Nation

The first trailer is here (click above). Finally enough with the white saviour movies and the stories of how the likes of Abraham Lincoln and William Wilberforce single handedly – in their respective countries – set Black folks free! The canon of mainstream movies about the slave trade seem to exclusively tell either these stories or the story of our victimhood.

While it’s important to understand the horrors, brutality and suffering upon which American and European wealth and capitalism were built, the absence of stories of resistance in mainstream culture is problematic.

Films about Toussaint L’Ouverture and the Haitian Revolution and Nat Turner and the 1831 rebellion are what I’ve always felt were needed. In The Birth of A Nation, African-American writer/actor/director/producer Nate Parker has given us the latter – initially under his own steam. He’s reported to have invested about $100,000 of his own money in the $10m production, turning down multiple acting jobs over the seven years it took to pursue his passion project.

Parker sold the distribution rights to Fox Searchlight (distributors of 12 Years A Slave) for $17.5million – a relatively small price to pay for the Hollywood distributor to patch the absence of a film starring a Black actor in their 2016 slate. It does mean, nevertheless, that at last we’re going to see mass distribution for a film that goes some way towards re-balancing the emancipation story.

Set against the antebellum South, The Birth Of A Nation follows Nat Turner (Nate Parker), a literate slave and preacher, whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. As he witnesses and experiences countless atrocities against himself and other enslaved Africans, Nat orchestrates an uprising in the hopes of leading his people to freedom.

The Birth Of A Nation is Parker’s first feature as director. By appropriating the title of the infamous 1915 D. W. Griffith film, known as much for its racist championing of the KKK as for its cinematic innovation, Parker and his co-producers guaranteed the full attention of the media and audience at this year’s Sundance Film Festival where it received several standing ovations, won both the Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award and sparked a bidding war that broke festival sales records.

This is what one Sundance reviewer had to say:
“The title, ‘The Birth of a Nation’, is a reclaiming of the same title associated with the 1915 D.W. Griffith silent film. Griffith’s movie was the first epic of its kind but is a blatant and spooky glorification of the Ku Klux Klan from today’s lens. It’s been a blemish that can’t be concealed in cinematic history since its release. Nate Parker’s story repurposes the title as a symbol of how this country was built on the backs of enslaved Africans and their unavoidable connection to a country founded on the pursuit of freedom. It’s a brilliant way to shelve Griffith’s film, which is an important movie for historical and cinematic study but, like the Confederate Flag, has no place in today’s world. Parker’s 2016 film most certainly does.”

There’ll be no prizes for predicting nominations in the industry love-in/PR-fest that is the Oscars after this year’s #OscarsSoWhite debacle.

The Birth of A Nation is slated for an October release in the US and January 2017 in the UK. Bring it on.

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