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On Monday afternoon, Nate Parker was greeted with a standing ovation when he took the stage at the Eccles theater at the Sundance Film Festival to introduce his film, the slave rebellion drama The Birth of a Nation.
Two hours later, as the credits began to roll, again the audience rose to applaud in a standing ovation that lasted through the credits, in what was arguably one of the longest standing Os in recent festival memory.
Parker’s film tells the story of slave Nat Turner (Parker also stars) who led a rebellion in the 1800s that resulted in the deaths of dozens of white slave owners. The film, which also stars Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller and Gabrielle Union, seemed to leave the audience (which included notable guests like Spike Lee) abuzz with an electric energy.
After Parker took the stage again for the Q&A portion (and received another standing ovation), he welcomed onstage not only many members of the cast but also dozens of crewmembers.
“This film carries a lot of responsibility. How can we help you carry it?” asked someone in the audience in the first question of the night.
“I made this film for one reason, with the hope of creating change agents. That people can watch this film and be affected. That you can watch this film and see that there were systems that were in place that were corrupt and corrupted people and the legacy of that still lives with us,” said Parker. “I just want you, if you are affected and you are so moved, to ask yourself, ‘Are there systems in my life that need attention whether it be racial, gender?’ There are a lot of injustices.”
Parker spoke about how he gave up acting for nearly two years to make the film, and the resistance he faced with getting it financed.
“It was very difficult, for so many reasons,” he said. “I think any time we’re dealing with our history, specifically with slavery, I find that it has been desperately sanitized. There’s a resistance to dealing with this material.”
The Birth of a Nation, which is looking for distribution at the festival, introduces Turner as a young boy, born into slavery, and follows him into adulthood as he becomes a preacher, falls in love and eventually leads a violent uprising against the slave owners.
Hammer, who plays the slave owner, was asked by an audience member how difficult it was to play that character.
“It sucked, it was not fun. There were definitely days when Nate had to stop what we were doing and remind us why we were all here because everybody felt the emotional burden of it,” he said. “But at the same time it was a story that needs to be told.”
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