BIRTH OF AN OSCAR WINNER?
SUNDANCE MAY HAVE LAUNCHED NEXT YEAR’S AWARDS RACE
INCE 1978, WHEN the Sundance Film Festival officially started life, a number of Academy Award winners, from The Usual Suspects’ Kevin Spacey to Boyhood’s Patricia Arquette, have all begun their Oscar journey in Park City, Utah. But the world’s most prestigious indie film festival has yet to predict a Best Picture winner. That could all be set to change, after Sundance 2016 threw up two likely contenders for Oscars 2017 in the shape of Kenneth Lonergan’s Manchester By The Sea and Nate Parker’s The Birth Of A Nation.
The former, a slow-burn emotional drama about a Boston handyman (Casey Affleck) coping with divorce and loss, sold for $10 million to Amazon Studios, who pledged to give it a theatrical release. “It generated near-immediate Oscar buzz when it premiered,” says Variety’s chief film critic Justin Chang. “It does have a certain thematic kinship with past Academy favourites like In The Bedroom, The Sweet Hereafter and Ordinary People. It deals in heavy themes relating to grief and family and redemption, and it has an excellent performance from Casey Affleck, which, if there is any justice, will put him in the conversation for the first time since The Assassination Of Jesse James.”
It was The Birth Of A Nation, though, that really got pulses racing. Reclaiming the title from D. W. Griffith’s notoriously racist 1915 movie, Parker’s movie tells the story of 19th-century slave rebel leader Nat Turner, and was a blood-soaked powder-keg of a film that couldn’t have been more timely. While the hashtag #Oscarssowhite was trending on Twitter, the film — which Parker directed, co-wrote and starred in — became the talking point of the festival. Rumour has it Netflix went all out to acquire it, but with the recent Oscar snub meted out to the streaming giant’s Beasts Of No Nation perhaps still fresh in the minds of Parker and his team, they sold instead to Fox Searchlight for an unprecedented $17.5 million, locking in the film for release during Oscar season (traditionally, October to December in the US).
“The cynical view is that The Birth Of A Nation was a shoo-in for Sundance’s top awards even before it screened simply because, as a film about slavery
from a black filmmaker, it captures the mood of the moment and speaks to the many issues of justice and representation facing the US and the film industry,” says Chang. “My own view is that while the film is by no means perfect, it’s a seriously impressive achievement in which you can feel Nate Parker’s passion and craft in every frame, and without those qualities, I think goodwill and identity politics only get you so far.”
Unsurprisingly for a confrontational and provocative film, The Birth Of A Nation may have a difficult year ahead. “It’s a powerful film but a tough one as well,” says Chang, who warns of an “inevitable backlash”. “Historians and politicians, particularly those of a conservative bent, will have their knives out. On a more basic level, some voters may feel some fatigue about this subject matter again just three years after 12 Years A Slave, and even the strongest supporters of The Birth Of A Nation would probably concede that 12 Years A Slave is a better film. So Parker’s movie will have to stand on its own merits.”
We’ll know for sure at some point in the next few months. For while it may be early days, make no mistake — the race to the Oscars 2017 has already begun.