Nate Parker’s directorial debut The Birth of a Nation rode into TIFF on a wave of controversy and has easily been the most hotly debated film among those in the long festival lines. While a hit at the Sundance festival, The Birth of a Nation divided many in the TIFF audience. This was not because of the rape allegations that have plagued the director for months, though some will surely cite that as an excuse, but simply because the film is not as strong as it could have been.
An ambitious undertaking-Parker wrote, directed, produced, and starred in the film-there is no doubt that the life of Nat Turner, an enslaved man who led the insurrection of 1831, deserves the cinematic treatment. The film follows Turner from a young man whose gift of being able to read leads him to becoming a preacher for his fellow slaves. Convincing his master Samuel (Armie Hammer) to purchase Cherry (Aja Naomi King), a fellow slave who would have otherwise been auctioned off into sexual slavery, Turner strikes up a romance with the young woman and eventually starts a family. Living a comfortable married life with Cherry, or as much as they can given the circumstances, Turners eyes are opened to the atrocious torture his fellow slave endure, when he is asked to preach at other plantations in hopes of quelling any thoughts of rebellion. Finding it tough to preach complacency in the face of such tragedy, Turner is finally pushed over the edge when three men rape and assault his wife.
The Birth of a Nation is clearly a labour of love for Parker, and it is evident that he pours his heart into each frame of the film. There are some truly beautiful shots in the film and the performances by Parker and cast, especially Aja Naomi King who is a revelation here, are admirable. However, Parker’s lack of experience behind the camera shows in the uneven nature of the film. Furthermore, and most disheartening, Parker never trusts the audience enough to let them grasp the significance of each moment on their own. He frequently beats the viewer over the head with symbolism at every corner. It is not enough to let viewers witness the powerful scene of slaves placing candles in their windows as a sign of solidarity with a badly whipped Turner. No, Parker needs to include both the orchestral cues and the sight of Turner rising up to unnecessarily sell the fact that the hero is finding strength from his peers. It is moments like these, which are frequent, that hurt the film.
It is wrong to compare The Birth of a Nation to Steve McQueen’s masterful 12 Years a Slave, that film is truly a work of art, but McQueen showed a faith in the viewer that is sorely lacking here. As a result what could have been a truly powerful film ends up feeling adequate at best. While the film shows flashes of promise for Parker as a director, The Birth of a Nation ultimately does not live up to the hype that proceeded it.
Saturday, September 17, 3:00 PM, Prince of Wales
Tickets can be purchased at tiff.net