You know the big Sundance winner when you see it. There’s little missing that certain rousing quality they usually possess, to say nothing of the perfect storm of chatter, acclaim, and distributor interest they instantly, invariably conjure. Last year, it was Me And Earl And The Dying Girl, which became the favorite to win the U.S. Dramatic prize (essentially, Sundance’s equivalent of Best Picture) the day it premiered. Same goes for the previous year’s winner, Whiplash, which sewed up the award on opening night, then sat pretty as every single competition title that screened in its wake failed to inspire anything close to as rapturous a reception. And though I didn’t end up actually seeing the film in Park City, word of Fruitvale Station’s unstoppable appeal back in 2013 traveled fast, to the point that its win seemed like a foregone conclusion. When a movie lands hard on Sundance, the jury honors its impact.
Yesterday, a movie landed hard on Sundance. And after days of lukewarm reactions and muted praise—Manchester By The Sea, probably the consensus favorite of the fest, screened outside of competition—it feels safe to say that we have a frontrunner. Nate Parker’s fiery, flawed directorial debut The Birth Of A Nation (Grade: B) received its first standing ovation before a single frame had rolled. People were ready to love this film. A dramatization of the life and death of Nat Turner, the black preacher who led an 1831 slave insurrection in Virginia, the film arrives at a moment when the reverberations of America’s ugly history make daily headlines and when the movie industry—particularly that annual pageant of self-love, the Oscars—is taking some deserved heat for its lack of diversity. When the audience at the premiere rose to their feet again with the crawl of the end credits, were they cheering for the film, its very hard-won existence (Parker fought for years to get it made), or both?
The title itself is a gauntlet dropped to the dirt, a bold declaration of intent: Parker, star of Red Tails and Beyond The Lights, is reclaiming the history distorted by Hollywood’s very first blockbuster, while also offering a different turning point for the country, tracing the ongoing battle for black lives straight back to this single spark of rebellion. If the filmmaker’s ambitions eclipse his means, both monetary and creative, a triumph of representation has still been achieved. In other words, the power of seeing this story—a slavery narrative of not just suffering, but also resistance—finally put up on screens helps compensate for some of its first-feature clumsiness.
A biopic conventional in all but the biography it depicts, The Birth Of A Nation draws much of its gravity from the details of its true story. It begins with Turner as a boy, before leaping ahead to his adulthood as a slave preacher, haunted by spiritual visions and burdened by an increasing sense of responsibility. Parker, who co-wrote the heavily researched screenplay with Jean McGianni Celestin, synthesizes the available information into a tale of moral awakening: As Turner navigates the plantation system, going from one property to another to spread the gospel to other slaves, the film emphasizes the religious dimension of his eventual decisions—the way his rebellion grew out a righteous sense of spiritual responsibility. (In one of the film’s most crucial and gut-wrenching scenes, Turner helplessly witnesses a particularly cruel plantation owner mutilate and force feed one of his field hands, who’s refused to eat as a show of dissent.)
Parker himself plays Turner, which has to qualify as his best choice. It’s a performance of slow-simmering conviction; we can see the will to resist developing behind Turner’s eyes, a quiet storm building scene by scene. But Parker is less confident with his supporting cast, among them Gabrielle Union, Armie Hammer, and Jackie Earle Haley. In its worst moments, The Birth Of A Nation gains the faint impression of bad dress-up, as some of the actors grapple awkwardly with their courtly dialogue. Parker’s direction of the camera is similarly inconsistent: For every striking, poetic image (like blood erupting from a husk of corn) there’s a misjudged visual idea (like the cheesy Star Wars holograms that appear to Turner in his dreams). This is very much a debut feature, a passion project from an enthusiastic director still learning the craft.
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Structurally and stylistically, The Birth Of A Nation doesn’t deviate much from the template set by countless Hollywood historical epics: Parker isn’t immune to the sentimental appeal of swelling music or slow-motion, and his powerful finale bears an unmistakable resemblance to the ending of Braveheart. (To be fair, Mel Gibson would never come up with a soundtrack selection as affecting as “Strange Fruit.”) In a way, though, that squareness is half the point. Parker is addressing a long-standing oversight, applying a common cinematic language to a story Hollywood has never touched. He’s giving a different audience, an underrepresented one, the conventionally stirring bio-drama white audiences take completely for granted, the same way that black filmmakers in the ’70s put their own spin on the boilerplate genre movies of their day. That makes The Birth Of A Nation an important movie, if still an imperfect one, and it seems good enough reason for Sundance to award it top honors. I’d certainly rather see Parker’s film take the U.S. Dramatic prize than something like As You Are (Grade: C+), a sensitively performed but very common teen drama whose stellar young cast and vivid ’90s milieu can’t quite redeem its utter familiarity.
Sundance is supposed to be about boosting new talents, about ushering a new wave of filmmakers into the industry. And yet this year, Parker is one of only a few up-and-comers to make a splash. Otherwise, the festival has been dominated by established names, even when their films have been less than game-changing. The press plays its own part in the problem, of course. If I could go back a day, maybe I’d try my luck on an unknown quantity instead of filling my fifth day at Sundance with new movies by returning alums Spike Lee and Kevin Smith.
Michael Jackson’s Journey From Motown To Off The Wall (Grade: B-) is the second documentary Lee has made about the pop star, and like its predecessor, Bad 25, it’s a well-assembled but very minor mash note. Digging up a treasure trove of archival footage and getting a who’s who of friends and collaborators to contribute talking-head interviews, Spike takes us from Jackson’s childhood in Gary, Indiana through the release of his seminal solo debut. It’s interesting to hear artists talk about how Michael and his siblings shattered the racial glass-ceiling of the pop industry, giving young black fans and future stars an icon of their own. Otherwise, though, Journey feels like a pretty cursory and uncritical history lesson, at least until the interviewees start breaking Off The Wall down track by track. The film seems built for television, though seeing it that way would deprive fans of its main merit: hearing Jackson’s great songs through a Dolby speaker system.
Kevin Smith is a better public speaker than he is a filmmaker. He’s proven that with his popular series of live all-talk specials, and he proved it again last night, during an extended introduction to his latest. Taking the stage in a custom hockey jersey, Smith got choked up telling an anecdote about meeting Robert Redford and feeling part of the community of filmmakers Sundance fosters. For 20 minutes, he was funny, candid, and sympathetic; I haven’t been a Smith fan since my teenage years, when he was riding high on Chasing Amy and Dogma, but seeing the man spill his heart on stage gave me a twinge of affection and even guilt. Have I been too hard on his movies, too eager to bag on an earnest director who makes films from the heart? I was suddenly ready to watch a Silent Bob production with an open mind.
And then the movie started. A spin-off of his last film, the born-from-a-podcast Tusk, Yoga Hosers (Grade: D) builds an aimless buddy comedy out of a single scene from the earlier film, the one featuring Smith and Johnny Depp’s teenage daughters as snarky convenience-store employees. Hopes that Smith might have made a distaff, spiritual sequel to Clerks—his career-launching 1994 Sundance hit—are dashed when Johnny Depp shows up again as his insufferable French-Canadian character from Tusk and the film is invaded by an army of babbling Nazi bratwurst monsters. (Don’t ask.) “I don’t give a shit about the audience anymore,” Smith half-joked during the introduction, and indeed, Yoga Hosers’ 87 laughless minutes feel motivated by little more than the filmmaker’s proud-father affection—endearing in theory, close to unwatchable in practice. Still, if Yoga Hosers looked to me more like a harmless waste of time than a malicious one, it’s probably because of the big-hearted context Smith provided in his intro. The guy should just tour with the movie and get emotional before every screening.