Justin Chang –variety.com
“The Birth of a Nation,” writer-director-star Nate Parker’s stirring drama about the life of Nat Turner and the slave rebellion he led in antebellum Virginia, won the grand jury prize and the audience award for American dramatic features at the Sundance Film Festival on Saturday night. The film’s double-fisted victory sealed its standing as the sensation of the festival’s 2016 edition, following its record-shattering $17.5 million acquisition earlier in the week by Fox Searchlight.
This is the fourth year in a row that a single film has taken the top two prizes in the U.S. dramatic competition, following “Fruitvale Station” (2013), “Whiplash” (2014) and “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl” (2015). That general trend aside, many had anticipated precisely this outcome for “The Birth of a Nation,” whose rapturous reception on Monday seemed to chime with a number of issues affecting the culture in general and the film industry in particular. A seven-year labor of love for Parker, “Birth” will enter the marketplace with high hopes and expectations as an acclaimed work by a black filmmaker in an industry under fire for its lack of diversity in the wake of the #OscarsSoWhite controversy.
Parker nodded to that particular issue when accepting the grand jury prize: “Thank you, Sundance, for creating a platform for us to grow, in spite of what the rest of Hollywood is doing.”
Parker wasn’t the only filmmaker of color to make reference to diversity in his acceptance speech. Accepting his U.S. documentary directing prize for “Life, Animated,” Roger Ross Williams, who became the first African-American director to win a documentary short Oscar six years ago (for “Music by Prudence”), noted, “In this age of #OscarsSoWhite and diversity, I want to thank Sundance for honoring me.”
Just as diversity took the stage at the Screen Actors Guild in Hollywood earlier that evening (with wins for Idris Elba, Viola Davis and Queen Latifah), so this year’s Sundance — and its slate of dramatic competition winners — seemed to stand in especially pointed contrast to the Academy’s recent woes.
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