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Sundance sensation: Ex-wrestler Parker's 'The Birth of a Nation' film

"The Birth of a Nation" -- a film written and directed by former Penn State and Oklahoma wrestler Nate Parker -- was something of a sensation at the Sundance Film Festival this winter, not only cleaning up on major awards, but also sold for the highest price of any film in the long history of the Park City, Utah festival.

Nate Parker
The film which tells the story of the 1831 slave revolt led by Nat Turner won the grand jury prize for a narrative film and was voted the best movie by audiences at the festival, "setting up an expected 2017 Oscar run," according to the New York Times.

If that weren't enough, Fox Searchlight Pictures paid $17.5 million -- a Sundance record -- for the distribution rights to Parker's 118-minute film, which was independently financed for about $10 million.

In accepting the awards on stage, Parker -- who, in addition to his writer/director roles, played Nat Turner in the film -- said, "An issue film succeeds when it touches people. I've seen that people are open to change."

Before his "The Birth of a Nation" premiered at Sundance, Parker told the audience, "I made this film for one reason: creating change agents." The former Nittany Lion-turned-Sooner wrestler added that getting the film made was "extremely difficult for many reasons … the first was our subject matter: anytime we are dealing with history, specifically slavery, I found that desperately sanitized. There's a resistance, I'll say, to dealing with this material."

"It took Nate Parker seven years, $100,000 of his own money, and a lot of hard work to make 'The Birth of a Nation,'" according to Wired.com.

Film critic Justin Chang of the entertainment publication Variety seems to think the time and effort on Parker's part was more than worth it. In the opening paragraph of his strongly positive review, Chang wrote, "It speaks to his ambition that the writer, director, producer and actor Nate Parker chose to title his slavery drama "The Birth of a Nation" though the film would be a significant achievement by any name. Arriving more than a century after D.W. Griffith's epic lit up the screen with racist images forever destined to rankle and provoke, this powerfully confrontational account of Nat Turner's life and the slave rebellion he led in 1831 seeks to purify and reclaim a motion-picture medium that has only just begun to treat America's 'peculiar institution' with anything like the honesty it deserves."

(Yes, there is another film titled "The Birth of a Nation" -- the first feature-length (two hour) silent film in the U.S., which was written and directed by D.W. Griffith. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Griffith's 1915 silent film "focuses on two white families during the Civil War and the Ku Klux Klan's rise during Reconstruction. Much of what was portrayed in the first feature-length U.S. movie is repugnantly racist, but it changed the film business forever.")


In addition to Nate Parker, other actors in "The Birth of a Nation" include Armie Hammer, Mark Boone Jr., Colman Domingo, Aunjanue Ellis, Dwight Henry, Aja Naomi King, Esther Scott, Roger Guenveur Smith, Gabrielle Union, Penelope Ann Miller, Jackie Earle Haley, Tony Espinosa, Jayson Warner Smith, and Jason Stuart.

Parker's current career started when he was discovered at a modeling convention in Dallas (he was attending with a friend) which led to a commercial… then roles in TV and movies. His films include Denzel Washington's The Great Debaters, Secret Life of Bees, and Beyond the Lights.

Prior to launching his film career, Nate Parker made a name for himself on the wrestling mat. Born in November 1979 in Norfolk, Va., Parker was introduced to wrestling as a high school sophomore. At national wrestling powerhouse Great Bridge High School, Parker claimed the 125-pound Division AAA title at the 1998 Virginia state championships, and an eighth place finish at the Junior Nationals. Parker earned a scholarship to wrestle at Penn State, and became a starter. However, he left the school after he and a teammate were accused of having had non-consensual sex with a woman; he was acquitted in 2001.

Parker transferred to the University of Oklahoma, where he earned All-American honors by placing fifth in the 141-pound bracket at the 2002 NCAA Division I Wrestling Championships.

Want to know more about Nate Parker's "The Birth of a Nation" film? Check out the Wall Street Journal's brief video titled The Birth of a Nation Takes Aim at 1915 Original.

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