New England Gets 1st Glimpse Of 'Birth Of A Nation' At Martha's Vineyard African American Film Festival

Nate Parker as Nat Turner in "The Birth of a Nation." (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)
Nate Parker as Nat Turner in "The Birth of a Nation." (Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures)

If you haven’t heard of Nate Parker that will change soon enough.

Parker is the writer, director and star of “The Birth of a Nation,” one of the most anticipated films of the year. No, it’s not the 1915 D.W. Griffith film, simultaneously praised for its cinematic technique and denounced in as racist propaganda.

This year’s “The Birth of a Nation” is a retelling of the Nat Turner rebellion with Parker playing the lead role of the prescient preacher-slave who led a murderous uprising that some historians call a prelude to the Civil War.

In January, Parker was Sundance’s biggest headline. He picked up the film festival’s Grand Jury Prize and Audience Award and cut a deal with Fox Searchlight for $17.5 million, breaking all previous festival sales records. It’s his first film and was partly self-financed.

“The Birth of a Nation” opens nationwide on Oct. 7 and the trailer is as compelling as any I’ve seen:

The first chance for those of us in New England to see it is at the 14th annual Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival (MVAAFF), which takes place Aug. 8-13. The festival will screen an excerpt of “The Birth of a Nation” on Saturday Aug. 13 at 7 p.m. Afterward, Parker and Aja Naomi King (who plays Turner’s wife) will discuss the film with Spike Lee.

The event follows a tradition of provocative conversations developed by festival co-founders (and spouses) Floyd A.B. Rance and Stephanie Tavares-Rance. Floyd Rance says that Lee hosted a similar dialogue last year after showing a segment from “Chi-Raq.”

The couple has been running the festival from their Charlotte, North Carolina, base since 2002. Rance says they considered siting the festival in Barbados but a Vineyard vacation changed their mind. Though they are in the midst of “moving West,” he says, they have no immediate plans to change the locale. He says the Vineyard’s a great place to unwind and detox, adding, “You can take a walk in the water and leave it in the water.”

For that reason, and also for its mission to showcase films produced by and starring African Americans, the festival attracts a multi-generational audience from all over the United States. Many return year after year. “It’s kind of like a homecoming meets family reunion meets a conference, kind of, sort of,” explains Rance. Plus, festival-goers can watch every film, upwards of 40 or 50 in any given year, because scheduling does not overlap.

This year’s lineup is similar to prior years, including fiction and documentary features as well as shorts. There’s a sneak peek of a new HBO series, “Insecure,” which premieres on Oct. 9 (just two days after “Birth of a Nation.”)

Creator and star Issa Rae gained notoriety for the web series “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl” and has said her new endeavor is “just about black people living life.” (HBO hosts a short film competition and gives several awards at the MVAAFF.)

Another highlight — and also notable from Sundance — is the feature “Southside With You,” a fictionalized version of Barack and Michelle (Robinson) Obama’s first date. This pick is especially fitting since the Obamas have made the Vineyard their vacation destination, adding intrigue to the already exclusive island.

Though the Obamas have not attended the festival, former Attorney General Eric Holder and other White House elite have, says Rance. And even with 30 or more filmmakers expected to be present, Rance says the festival is “not a gawk fest. We’re not trying to put all the celebrities in one place. Most of those encounters just seem to happen.”

This year’s opening night is a co-presentation with the Vineyard dance organization, The Yard. Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group will stage a multidisciplinary performance of “Citizen,” about artists who did and didn’t expatriate during the Harlem Renaissance.

The partnership came about three years ago when David White, The Yard’s artistic director, was looking for a space for choreographer Camille Brown to perform “Mr. Tol E. Rance,” a mixed-medium piece about the images of African Americans in entertainment. The film festival had the venue booked. White and film festival director Floyd Rance seized the opportunity.

White recalls that the audience’s reaction to Brown brought her to tears. “The questioning from that audience got so deep,” he remembers. “Just talking about the stereotypes, the archetypes… the different complexities within what often is treated as a single community...”

A dance has opened the Martha’s Vineyard African American Film Festival ever since. Now, White says, friends of the MVAAFF are friends of The Yard and vice versa.

For Rance, the unexpected allegiance has had a personal bonus. “I like live entertainment. I enjoy cinema as well, but I really enjoy live entertainment. The dance performances have been awesome. It’s something that really makes me happy.”


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Erin Trahan Film Writer
Erin Trahan writes about film for WBUR.



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