The record sale of 'Birth of a Nation' couldn't come at a better time. Are others set to follow?

By Nicole Sperling
February 04, 2016 at 12:00 PM EST
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A version of this piece appears in the latest issue of Entertainment Weekly. Head here get get the issue — subscribe now for the exclusive interviews and photos, only in EW.

The Sundance Film Festival has long celebrated unique directorial voices such as Benh Zeitlin (Beasts of the Southern Wild), Ryan Coogler (Fruitvale Station) and Ava DuVernay (Middle of Nowhere). But never has a filmmaker rocketed out of Park City the way Nate Parker just has with his slave-revolt epic, The Birth of a Nation

The reported $10 million film about the 1831 rebellion led by Nat Turner not only won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize and the Audience Award — it also scored the biggest distribution deal in festival history with Fox Searchlight paying $17.5 million for worldwide rights. 

“This is a win for independent filmmakers and independent film, and it’s a blow against white supremacy and racism,” says Parker, the film’s debut writer/director/producer/star. “I don’t know if Fox Searchlight recognizes what an amazing thing they did. They sent a message to everyone who says studios don’t want to recognize African-American films, African-American filmmakers, or African-Americans in the lead of films.” 

That message couldn’t have come at a more crucial time. Searchlight made the Nation deal as the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences faced fallout over the lack of diversity among this year’s nominees. And that uproar could dramatically change next year’s races. Nation is already considered a possible Best Picture contender and it’s one of several prestige projects starring and/or made by people of color that could dominate the 2017 awards season. 

Oscars or not, the conversation happening around diversity and inclusion is sweeping through Hollywood, prompting some to suggest that real change might finally be on the way — even if the biggest shift, for the time being, seems to be on the front lines of indie film.

The studios seem to be moving, albeit at a much slower pace. “You will see a change at the studios when they realize just how much money can be made from increased diversity; from realizing that the world is not just white, and that white people will see movies with people of color and do so enthusiastically,” says one movie industry insider.

Box office powerhouses — but Oscar oversights — like Straight Outta Compton and Creed proved just that with each grossing more than $100 million. In the coming months, a flurry of films will try to capitalize on that momentum.

This month, Focus Features will open Race, starring Selma’s Stephan James in the story of Jesse Owens’ historic Olympics medal run, and in April, Sony Pictures Classics will release Don Cheadle’s 10-years-in-the-making Miles Davis film, Miles Ahead, which the actor also directed, wrote, and financed himself through the crowdsourcing site Indiegogo. 

With luck, Southside With You will be released this year too. The Sundance film, about the young Barack Obama’s first date with future First Lady Michelle Robinson, is still seeking distribution. But Tika Sumpter, its female star and a producer, doesn’t want somebody to buy it just because it checks the diversity box. “I would hope that we did quality work that’s worth the conversation,” she says. “I don’t want it to be that it’s just because we are black that we are given a pass. It’s a universal love story.” 

So too is A United Kingdom, which chronicles the historic romance between the heir to the Botswana throne (Selma‘s David Oyelowo) and a white English-woman (Gone Girl‘s Rosamund Pike). Oyelowo spent five years bringing the historical interracial romance, directed by Amma Asante (Belle), to the screen; he credits his turn as Dr. Martin Luther King in Selma with giving him enough star power to push the film, which he also produced, into production.

“I’m a big believer in either you are part of the problem or part of the solution,” Oyelowo says. “If we are not getting the full spectrum of who we are as human beings through the arts that we are watching, I’ve been given just enough notoriety that I can do my part.” 

His other 2016 film is the Disney release, Queen of Katwe from director Mira Nair (The Namesake) in which he plays the coach to a young female Ugandan chess prodigy. Lupita Nyong’o (12 Years a Slave) co-stars as the child’s mother. 

“For me, so much is going to be gained by the world-at-large gaining context of what it is to be a young girl, what it is to be an African, what it is to see the world through the gaze of a female director,” Oyelowo says. “Life for Africans isn’t purely rooted in pain. Actually, Africans are leaders, Africans are kings, Africans are world champion chess players.” 

Disney isn’t the only studio seeking multicultural projects. At Twentieth Century Fox, Taraji P. Henson will star in Hidden Figures, an upcoming film about the black female mathematicians at NASA who were instrumental in getting a man in space (Octavia Spencer is in talks to join the cast). 

“It’s a story about women who are pioneers,” says Fox 2000 Pictures president Elizabeth Gabler about the end of the year release set to be directed by Ted Melfi. “And hopefully it will pave the way for other stories like this. It is critical to us that audiences embrace it.” 

Parker, for one, is optimistic that they will. The director, who was courted by multiple buyers hoping to win the rights to Nation, predicts a brighter future, despite the industry’s glacial rate of progress. While the studio system slowly adapts, it will likely be Hollywood’s newer generation of filmmakers that will begin to orchestrate the change themselves. 

“There was an excitement [at Sundance] about the possibility of change and the idea of starting a new movement,” he says. “If we can find a way to cultivate different artists and material from different demographics, we will naturally see the landscape change. Be we have to be open to it.” 

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  • Movie
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  • R
release date
  • 10/07/16
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  • 120 minutes
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