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.

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