Nat Turner Film ‘Birth of a Nation’ Wows at Sundance, Lands Record-Breaking Deal

The Birth of a Nation (2016) – Nate Parker, Armie Hammer, Jayson Warner Smith
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in 'The Birth of a Nation' (2016) [Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute]

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (2016) [Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute]

Nate Parker‘s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation, a historical drama based on Nat Turner‘s 1831 slave rebellion, left many in the 2016 Sundance Film Festival audience shaken and teary-eyed on Monday.

HitFix co-founder Gregory Ellwood called the feature “brutal, powerful with a strong vision come to life from Nate Parker.”

Birth of A Nation Premiere

‘The Birth Of A Nation’ Premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival [Click to Enlarge]

Soon after a thunderous applause that lasted until the lights came on, the film became the source of an all-night bidding war.

Companies such as Warner Bros., Weinstein Company, Paramount, Lionsgate, Sony, and Netflix were all vying for worldwide rights, with the latter reportedly offering $20 million. Update: comedian and television producer Byron Allen also submitted a $20 million bid through his media company Entertainment Studios.

By Tuesday afternoon, Fox Searchlight (12 Years A Slave) closed a $17.5 million deal brokered by WME Global, the richest in Sundance history.

The deal surpasses precedent-setting Sundance acquisitions like the $10.5 million deal for Little Miss Sunshine in 2006, and the $10 million deal for Hamlet 2 in 2008.

“Well, Nate Parker’s searing BIRTH OF A NATION just became the must watch film of the year. Devastating and vital,” said pop culture critic Jesse Wente on Tuesday.

Best known for roles in The Great Debaters and Beyond The Lights, Parker wrote The Birth of a Nation with Jean McGianni Celestin, directed the feature, and stars as Turner.

He also invested his own funds in the production, which, as he told the Sundance audience, has been “a passion project for the last seven years.”

U.S. Slave Insurrections Map: 1526-1865 (source:

U.S. Slave Insurrections Map: 1526-1865 (source: [Click to Enlarge]

As joy from Birth of A Nation‘s early success spreads, it seems more people are admitting they have never heard of Nat Turner or any slave rebellions in North America. The lack of focus given to these epic moments in history is the root of the myth that America’s slaves did not fight back.

Turner’s 1831 rebellion in Southampton, Virginia resulted in 55-65 white deaths, 100-200 black deaths, and his hanging. However it is just one of 313 slave insurrections in the U.S. between 1526 and the end of the Civil War in 1865.

While most revolts were led by enslaved Africans, quite a few were led by and/or included enslaved “Indians,” as well as free blacks, whites, and “Indian allies.”

Armie Hammer, Nate Parker and Jayson Warner Smith in 'The Birth of a Nation' (2016) [Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute]

Armie Hammer, Nate Parker and Jayson Warner Smith in ‘The Birth of a Nation’ (2016) [Elliot Davis/Sundance Institute]

In Birth of A Nation, Turner is a “literate slave and preacher whose financially strained owner, Samuel Turner, accepts an offer to use Nat’s preaching to subdue unruly slaves. After witnessing countless atrocities against fellow slaves, Nat devises a plan to lead his people to freedom.”

The film also stars Armie Hammer (The Social Network), Aja Naomi King (How to Get Away With Murder), Aunjanue Ellis (The Book of Negroes), Colman Domingo (Selma), Dwight Henry (12 Years a Slave), Roger Guenveur Smith (Empire State) and Gabrielle Union (Being Mary Jane).

A recipient of a fellowship with the Sundance Institute Feature Film Program last year, Birth of A Nation was produced by Aaron L. Gilbert, Kevin Turen, Jason Michael Berman, Preston Holmes and Parker under Bron Studios, Phantom Four, Mandalay Pictures and Tiny Giant Prods. in association with Follow Through Prods., Infinity Entertainment and Creative Wealth Media Finance.

The most notable film project about Turner before Birth of A Nation was Charles Burnett‘s 2003 documentary, Nat Turner: A Troublesome Property, which aired on PBS in 2004.

Fox Searchlight will be preparing Birth of A Nation to meet or exceed the studio’s wins with Steve McQueen‘s 12 Years A Slave, which went on to earn $187.7 million at the box office and an Academy Award for Best Picture in 2014.