After two weeks of anticipation, the verdict is in — “The Birth of a Nation” wowed the Toronto Film Festival.
The fact-based drama and has been embroiled in controversy thanks to a 17-year-old rape case involving director Nate Parker, and many questioned how the TIFF audience would receive the awards hopeful, about a slave rebellion led by Nat Turner in 1831.
The crowd at Toronto’s Winter Garden Theater applauded for nearly a minute after the credits started rolling, cheering when Parker’s name appeared on screen.
“We’re desperately proud to present it to you,” Parker said while introducing the film.
The director was in attendance with almost all of his cast, including Armie Hammer, Gabrielle Union and Aja Naomi King. In from Los Angeles was 20th Century Fox Chairman and CEO Stacey Snider, who oversees the Fox Searchlight label that acquired the film for $17.5 million at January’s Sundance Film Festival.
Searchlight is run by co-presidents Nancy Utley and Stephen Gilula, though it’s not surprising that newly minted CEO Snider would show face.
“I have to fulfill expectations,” Snider told a friend the moment she stepped out of her car at the top of the red carpet. She elected, however, to skip a photo op.
The rave reviews that came out of Sundance focused largely on Parker’s versatile talent — on the page, on the screen, in the director’s chair, as a producer. They weren’t lying, but the sum of those parts leaves an incredibly violent, emotionally harrowing journey through the degradation of slaves in the American South before the dawn of the Civil War.
The film depicts beatings, lashings, lynchings, canes and, yes, two instances of rape (an implicit attack, and one that results in a beating so fierce that Naomi King’s face is swollen to three times its size). There is no end to the physical and emotional torment until, of course, the uprising.
It was interesting to see the audience eat up Parker as a romantic hero, fumbling over himself in awe of Naomi King’s beauty when she first arrives at his plantation. A later scene, when Parker rides into his beloved’s yard on horseback and takes her face in his hands to kiss her before she can ask what brought him, didn’t inspire as much swooning.
Gabrielle Union is a different story. For decades, the actress been a fierce and consistent talent, but after the brave and compelling admission of her own sexual abuse and her problems with Parker’s past — it’s devastating to watch her character leave the scene of her own rape at the hands of a visiting white man, a tryst arranged by her master.
Her performance will be colored by the real-life events surrounding her filmmaker, and the combined effect is wrenching. Many tears were shed in the Winter Garden during her big scene.
Parker himself delivers a powerful performance as Nat Turner, both in his struggle to maintain dignity and composure through the horrors of the time, and as a galvanizing leader looking for justice in step with his Christian faith.
Searchlight unveiled the promotional schedule for “Birth” in the final days of August. It will include a television junket for Parker on Saturday and a reporters roundtable on Sunday.
Parker was charged and acquitted of rape allegations in 1999, an incident that resurfaced in a series of recent interviews he did to promote the film’s release and awards campaign. The media also reported news of his accuser’s suicide, which occurred in 2012.