TIFF 2016 Review: The Birth of A Nation is an emotional, gut-wrenching masterpiece.
The Birth of Nation has been a passion project for Nate Parker ever since he first learned about Nat Turner during an African American course at the University of Oklahoma. The film is loosely based on the life of Nat Turner and how Turner went from being a slave that preached the gospel to becoming the leader of the slave rebellion in 1831.
I was supposed to see The Birth of a Nation at its World Premiere at the 2016 Sundance Film Festival. Sadly, the Premiere screening was oversold leaving myself and about a hundred of others standing with tickets in hand outside in the cold. Determined to see the film, I saw The Birth of a Nation at its final screening at Sundance right before I left to return home. The film played to a packed crowd at the Library Theater where there were plenty of tears shed as well as a 5-minute standing ovation for Parker as he made his way up to the podium to start the Q&A.
I didn’t review The Birth of a Nation at Sundance because I wanted to re-watch so I could give it a proper review. I attended the TIFF premiere screening and just like the one at Sundance; it was sold out. Upon watching the film for the second time, I found myself even more engrossed with the story and the characters. We have seen so many films about slavery that Parker had to do something different to make his directorial debut stand out.
Needless to say, 12 Years a Slave set the bar incredibly high for films focusing on slavery. Upon re-watching this film, I strongly believe that Birth of a Nation is on that same level when it comes to the performances, filmmaking, and storytelling. Just like 12 Years, the film is told through the eyes of one central individual. Nat Turner is the film’s primary focus, and it shows him throughout various points in his life. It showcases how Turner’s life has changed but also manages to show how those around him have changed as well.
While I think every performance is terrific, I must praise Parker for working behind the camera while also starring in the lead role. Parker brings Turner to life and realistically demonstrates how complicated Turner’s life was. It was so interesting to witness Turner’s journey and how he went from being a man who preached his love of God to becoming a man that just couldn’t deal with the violence that was constantly occurring to those around him.
Parker and his screenwriting partner, Celestin craft a story with a lot of layers. The first and second act is focused on showing the pain and suffering of the slaves. Each scene of torture was heart wrenching and will bring many to tears. There are about six or seven scenes showcasing how the slaves were being mistreated and tortured. Each scene was either accompanied by music that fit the tone perfectly or was completely silent. I found all these scenes to be emotionally powerful, and my eyes were filled with tears multiple times throughout this film. The long pull back sequence of the slaves hanging from trees filled my entire body with sadness and gave me goose bumps.
I must warn viewers that the third act of the film can be a bit jarring to witness. After we see everything that Turner has experienced, he decides to take a stand in the final act. The film turns into a revenge film but rightfully so after all that has occurred in the first two acts. Parker did such a great job transitioning the story by adding in moments prepping the audience that something is about to happen. There is a flashback sequence to all that he has witnessed as well as a scene with his wife where he asks her what he should do. Both scenes prepared me for what was about to happen next.
With all the violence that occurs during the final act, the ending of Birth of a Nation will haunt you for days. I think it is almost impossible to walk out of the theater and not be a tiny bit teary-eyed. It is so perfectly captured and will leave you feeling devastated as the end credits begin to roll.
Birth of a Nation is a must-see. Every performance is stellar, and Parker’s direction is terrific. The use of music is perfectly placed throughout and Parker knew exactly when to make the film silent. When I first saw Birth of a Nation back in January, I thought it was worthy of the hype and upon my second viewing, I still feel the same way. I can’t help but appreciate the story that Parker was telling and appreciated how personal it felt. This entire film is filled with powerful imagery that will stick with you for days, if not weeks after seeing it. The Birth of a Nation deserves some nominations this award season, and I can only hope that people can see what I as well as thousands of others have witnessed at Sundance and the Toronto International Film Festival.
Scott “Movie Man” Menzel’s final rating for The Birth of A Nation is a 9 out of 10.