The Birth of a Nation (2016 film)

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The Birth of a Nation
File:The Birth of a Nation (2016 film).png
Theatrical release poster
Directed by Nate Parker
Produced by
Screenplay by Nate Parker
Story by
  • Jean McGianni Celestin
  • Nate Parker
Music by Henry Jackman
Cinematography Elliot Davis
Edited by Steven Rosenblum
Distributed by Fox Searchlight Pictures
Release dates
Running time
110 minutes
Country United States
Language English
Budget $10 million[1]

The Birth of a Nation is a 2016 period drama film about Nat Turner, the slave who led a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia in 1831. The film is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker (as his directorial debut), who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker wrote the screenplay and petitioned financiers to invest in the film. It ultimately had a $10 million production budget and started filming in May 2015 in the U.S. state of Georgia. Along with Parker, the film features Armie Hammer, Aja Naomi King, Jackie Earle Haley, Penelope Ann Miller, and Gabrielle Union all in supporting roles. The location used was Savannah, Georgia.

The film premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016. Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal, the largest deal at the film festival to date. At the end of the festival, it won the Audience Award and Grand Jury Prize in the U.S. Dramatic Competition.


Nat Turner, as a child, is taught to read so he can study the Bible and be a preacher to fellow slaves. When Turner's master takes him across the country on a preaching tour to profit from his preaching, Turner begins to see the scope of slavery and decides to become a different leader.[2]



For the 1915 film from which the 2016 film takes its name, see The Birth of a Nation.

The 2016 film uses the same title as "the title of D.W. Griffith's 1915 KKK propaganda film in a very purposeful way", said The Hollywood Reporter.[4] Nate Parker said his film had the same title "ironically, but very much by design".[5] He told the magazine Filmmaker, "Griffith's film relied heavily on racist propaganda to evoke fear and desperation as a tool to solidify white supremacy as the lifeblood of American sustenance. Not only did this film motivate the massive resurgence of the terror group the Ku Klux Klan and the carnage exacted against people of African descent, it served as the foundation of the film industry we know today. I've reclaimed this title and re-purposed it as a tool to challenge racism and white supremacy in America, to inspire a riotous disposition toward any and all injustice in this country (and abroad) and to promote the kind of honest confrontation that will galvanize our society toward healing and sustained systemic change."[6]


I kind of sold this project to investors and cast on legacy. I honestly think this is a film that could start a conversation that can promote healing and systemic change in our country. There's so many things that are happening right now in 2015 — 100 years after the original 'Birth of a Nation' film, here we are. I'd say that is what I hope sets my film apart, is that it's relevant now — that people will talk about this film with the specific intention of change.

Nate Parker, 2015[7]

The Birth of a Nation is written, produced, and directed by Nate Parker, who also stars as Nat Turner. Parker wrote the screenplay, which was based on a story by him and Jean McGianni Celestin.[3] Parker learned about Turner from an African-American studies course at the University of Oklahoma. He began writing the screenplay for a Nat Turner film in 2009 and had a fellowship at a lab under the Sundance Institute. While he got writing feedback from filmmakers like James Mangold, he was told that a Nat Turner film could not be produced. The Hollywood Reporter said, "But what he heard instead were all the reasons a movie about Nat Turner wouldn't work: Movies with black leads don't play internationally; a period film with big fight scenes would be too expensive; it was too violent; it wouldn't work without a big box-office star leading it; Turner was too controversial — after all, he was responsible for the deaths of dozens of well-off white landowners."[4]

After Parker finished his acting role in Beyond the Lights in late 2013, he told his agents he would not continue acting until he had played Nat Turner in a film. He invested $100,000 of his money to hire a production designer and to pay for location scouting in Savannah, Georgia. He met with multiple financiers, and the first to invest in the film were retired basketball player Michael Finley (who invested in the film The Butler) and active basketball player Tony Parker (no relation). Nate Parker eventually brought together 11 groups of investors to finance 60 percent of the $10 million production budget, and producer Aaron L. Gilbert of Bron Studios joined to cover the remaining financing.[4]

In November 2014, development was underway, and Armie Hammer joined the cast.[8] By April 2015, Aja Naomi King and Gabrielle Union joined the cast.[9] In subsequent months, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, and Mark Boone Junior also joined the cast.[10] Filming took place in Georgia in May 2015 and lasted 27 days.[4]


The Birth of a Nation premiered in competition at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival on January 25, 2016.[4] Before it screened, the audience gave a standing ovation to the introduction of Nate Parker.[11] After it premiered, Variety said it "received the most enthusiastic standing ovation at this year's Sundance Film Festival so far".[12] Following The Birth of a Nation's Sundance premiere, Fox Searchlight Pictures bought worldwide rights to the film in a $17.5 million deal. Competing deals also came from The Weinstein Company, Sony Pictures Entertainment, and Netflix. Variety said Fox Searchlight's deal was "the richest in Sundance history".[13]

Critical reception

The Birth of a Nation received "mostly enthusiastic reviews" at Sundance, according to The Hollywood Reporter.[14] The film review website Metacritic surveyed 10 critics and assessed 9 reviews as positive and 1 as mixed. It gave an aggregate score of 77 out of 100, indicating "generally favorable reviews".[15] On Rotten Tomatoes the film has a rating of 96%, based on 23 critics, assessing 22 reviews as positive and 1 as negative, with an average rating of 7.6/10.[16]

Justin Chang at Variety compared The Birth of a Nation to 12 Years a Slave (2013), "Parker's more conventionally told but still searingly impressive debut feature pushes the conversation further still: A biographical drama steeped equally in grace and horror, it builds to a brutal finale that will stir deep emotion and inevitable unease." Chang found the screenplay "well-researched" and said, "Parker demonstrates a fine touch with actors... and his command of mise-en-scene would be impressive even coming from a more seasoned filmmaker." The critic commended the recreation of antebellum Virginia as "outstanding", found the film to be "edited with measured intelligence... (with the exception of one too-slick montage)", and described the score as "stirring if sometimes overly vigorous". Chang said the film resonated in "its spiritual and intellectual acuity" with the "unholy nexus of capitalism and religion". The critic concluded, "'The Birth of a 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. It earns that debate and then some."[3]

The Hollywood Reporter's Todd McCarthy said, "The film vividly captures an assortment of slavery’s brutalities while also underlining the religious underpinnings of Turner's justifications for his assaults on slaveholders," considering the adaptation done in "a potent if also somewhat pokey manner that will nonetheless hit home with many viewers". McCarthy said, "On top of that, the direction has its moments of eloquence and a handful of memorable images... All the same, the deliberate and unvaried sense of pacing becomes monotonous, just as turbulent dramatic undercurrents and a sense of building narrative momentum are increasingly missed." The critic commended the supporting cast as "solid" though not as "stellar" as 12 Years a Slave. He found the cinematography "astutely judged and particularly notable in the night shooting", and the film score to be "unusually varied and [drawing] upon multiple musical traditions and references to fine effect". McCarthy said, "The film offers up more than enough in terms of intelligence, insight, historical research and religious nuance as to not at all be considered a missed opportunity; far more of the essentials made it into the film than not, its makers' dedication and minute attention are constantly felt and the subject matter is still rare enough onscreen as to be welcome and needed, as it will be the next time and the time after that."[17]


Awards and nominations
Association Date of ceremony Category Nominee(s) Result Ref.
Sundance Film Festival January 29, 2016[18] Audience Award: U.S. Dramatic Nate Parker Won [19]
U.S. Grand Jury Prize: Dramatic Won

See also


  1. "‘Birth of a Nation’ becomes a hit amid Oscar furor". 
  2. "The Birth of a Nation". Sundance Institute. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  3. 3.00 3.01 3.02 3.03 3.04 3.05 3.06 3.07 3.08 3.09 3.10 3.11 3.12 3.13 3.14 3.15 3.16 Chang, Justin (January 25, 2016). "Sundance Film Review: 'The Birth of a Nation'". Variety. Retrieved January 26, 2016. 
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 Ford, Rebecca (January 20, 2016). "'Birth of a Nation': The Slave-Revolt Movie That Will Have Sundance Talking". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  5. Brown, Emma (April 21, 2014). "Nate Parker's Future Past". Interview. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  6. Rezayazdi, Soheil (January 25, 2016). "Five Questions with The Birth of a Nation Director Nate Parker". Filmmaker. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  7. Williams, Brennan (January 20, 2016). "'Birth Of A Nation' Star Says Few Acting Roles For Black Men Have 'Integrity'". The Huffington Post. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  8. McNary, Dave (November 12, 2014). "Armie Hammer Joins Nat Turner Biopic 'Birth of Nation'". Variety. Retrieved January 24, 2016. 
  9. McNary, Dave (April 9, 2015). "Aja Naomi King Joins Armie Hammer in Nat Turner Biopic". Variety. Retrieved January 24, 2016. 
  10. Lincoln, Ross A. (May 8, 2015). "Margot Bingham Joins 'Barbershop 3'; Penelope Ann Miller In Nat Turner Biopic". Retrieved January 24, 2016. 
  11. Schwartzel, Erich (January 25, 2016). "Slavery Drama 'The Birth of a Nation' Premieres to Thunderous Applause at Sundance". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved January 26, 2016. 
  12. Setoodeh, Ramin (January 25, 2016). "'The Birth of a Nation' Premieres at Sundance With Big Standing Ovation and Oscar Buzz". Variety. Retrieved January 26, 2016. 
  13. Lang, Brent; Setoodeh, Ramin (January 25, 2016). "Sundance: Fox Searchlight Lands 'Birth of a Nation' in Massive $17.5 Million Deal". Variety. Retrieved January 26, 2016. 
  14. Ford, Rebecca; Siegel, Tatiana (January 26, 2016). "Sundance: Why Nate Parker Chose Fox Searchlight Over Netflix for 'The Birth of a Nation'". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved February 22, 2016. 
  15. "The Birth of a Nation Reviews". Metacritic. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 
  16. "The Birth of a Nation (2016)". Rotten Tomatoes. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 
  17. McCarthy, Todd (January 25, 2016). "'The Birth of a Nation': Sundance Review". The Hollywood Reporter. Retrieved January 25, 2016. 
  18. Chang, Justin (January 30, 2016). "Sundance: 'The Birth of a Nation' Sweeps Top Prizes". Variety. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 
  19. Sundance Film Festival Editors (January 30, 2016). "THE BIRTH OF A NATION". Sundance Film Festival. Retrieved February 27, 2016. 

External links

Preceded by
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl
Sundance Grand Jury Prize: U.S. Dramatic
Succeeded by