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Sundance Fights Tide With Films Like ‘The Birth of a Nation’

Manohla Dargis | The New York Times   in  ·
February 4, 2016

PARK CITY, Utah — Art and industry are still slugging it out at the Sundance Film Festival. That’s true even if you no longer hear many anguished discussions about the meaning of independent cinema. These days, chatter about distribution deals, a movie’s commercial potential and even if a title will be in play at the next Academy Awards tends to drown out meaningful discussions of cinema and whether independence can be quantified by vision, spirit, money or some ineluctable combination of these. Then again, given how thoroughly the industry has colonized the festival (as the clusters of agents at screenings suggest), anguishing about it can feel like misplaced nostalgia.

It’s also pointless because no matter how much the industry and its media minions seem determined to turn Sundance into a snowy exurb of Hollywood, the festival continues to push against the mainstream tide through some of its selections. Each January, there are titles here that rise above the noise, reminding you why Sundance, now 32, remains crucial for many. This is where worlds and cinema open up, whether in a documentary about the first girl in Mongolia to hunt with a golden eagle (“The Eagle Huntress,” a bliss-out) or a movie that finds the American director Kelly Reichardt giving Kristen Stewart a role and a burger to sink into with “Certain Women,” whose western characters are as stubbornly self-determined as this undersung filmmaker.

This year’s festival got off to a disquietingly sleepy start, only to be jolted awake with the Monday premiere of “The Birth of a Nation.” Written and directed by the actor Nate Parker (the love interest in “Beyond the Lights”), this historically informed drama revisits what has been characterized as the bloodiest slave revolt of hundreds of such uprisings. In 1831, Nat Turnerled an estimated 40 to 60 other enslaved men against neighboring slave-owning families in Southampton County, Va., killing 60 or so white men, women and children. The rebels were soon defeated, and although Turner escaped, he was captured a few months later. He was tried and hanged, though not before testifying to his actions, which were published as “The Confessions of Nat Turner.”


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