A directorial debut has become the most-talked about film at the Sundance Film Festival, with Fox Searchlight paying a record-breaking $17.5 million in an all-night bidding war against Netflix, Sony, and the Weinstein Company in order to snap up its distribution rights. The Birth of the Nation takes its title from D.W. Griffith's racist 1915 film of the same name, in which the Ku Klux Klan are positively portrayed. The 2016 Sundance hit instead tells the true story of a violent Virginia slave revolt in 1831; Nate Parker, the director and screenwriter, also plays the lead role of Nat Turner.
Prior to Tuesday's record-breaker, Me and Earl and the Dying Girl's $12 million deal with Fox Searchlight was Sundance's biggest sale; while that film earned mostly positive reviews, it didn't earn any major awards. Fox Searchlight also paid $10 million in 2006 for Little Miss Sunshine, which was a box office hit and earned a Best Picture Oscar nomination, Vanity Fair notes.
It might not be crazy to see the bidding war and positive reviews as early Oscar buzz: The movie earned a standing ovation and rave reviews that have likened it to Oscar Best Picture winner 12 Years a Slave. "The Birth of the Nation exists to provoke a serious debate about the necessity and limitations of empathy, the morality of retaliatory violence, and the ongoing black struggle for justice and equality in this country," Variety writes. "It earns that debate and then some."
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Gabrielle Union, an actress in the film, says part of the reason for its success is the timing. "The world desperately needs it," she told The Hollywood Reporter. "When you can look at a 12-year-old boy shot in less than two seconds and not see that child's humanity and his worth, this movie is desperately needed."
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