This year we’ve seen endless loops of online commentary and Hollywood hand-wringing about the enduring whiteness of American cinema and how structural challenges continue to restrict filmmakers of color. So it was not surprising that there was so much anticipation around the October release of first-time director Nate Parker’s film The Birth of a Nation. The story of Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and self-empowerment, as seen through the artistic vision of a young, black filmmaker, caused a bidding war at the Sundance Film Festival at the height of the #OscarsSoWhite campaign.
But by the time the Toronto International Film Festival opened last week, Parker was embroiled in a much louder conversation about sexual assault and toxic masculinity after debate about his acquittal on rape charges during his college days resurfaced. A month before the film that would prove Hollywood’s diverse bona fides was to open, it was already in full-blown public relations free fall.
Fortunately, The Birth of a Nation was neither the only nor the most anticipated film about black life to screen in Toronto, which hosts the largest film festival in North America; one that sets the tone for the Oscars and tests the viability of serious American cinema. Festival artistic director Cameron Baily told me that this year’s festival may have been its blackest edition ever. It pushes back against the idea that Hollywood can only absorb one black story at a time, and challenges the limited parameters of a “black film”.
This year’s festival shifted the conversation about diversity from a focus on the absence of black faces in movies to a feast of cinematic styles and stories as wide-ranging as the black experience itself.
Most importantly, the films opening at Toronto explored stories about justice, family, and selfhood without didactic or conventional Hollywood bluster about race. From the struggle for interracial marriage rights in the restrained drama Loving to a young boy’s battle to reconcile his masculinity and sexuality in Barry Jenkins’ lyrical second film Moonlight, this year’s program introduced a new set of faces and performances for critics to savor and nominate.
Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair premiered Queen of Katwe, a story about a young Ugandan woman’s journey to become an international chess champion. The movie was filmed in Uganda and South Africa and opens in wide release as a Disney production. It stars Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and David Oyelowo (Selma), and features no white saviors.
Perhaps the best-received film of the festival to directly confront the limited portrayal of blackness on screen was I Am Not Your Negro, filmmaker Raoul Peck’s searing new documentary about writer James Baldwin. The film won the festival’s prestigious top documentary prize and was purchased for wide release by Magnolia pictures. Made in collaboration with the Baldwin estate, Peck’s documentary tells the story of American racism through the words of Baldwin’s unfinished manuscript, archive interviews, and his essays on race relations. It features no talking heads, hazy footage or conventional biographical framing devices. Instead, it blends Baldwin’s writing with arresting footage of contemporary police brutality to underscore the writer’s powerful insight and voice.
At this year’s Toronto festival, neither the filmmakers nor the curators wished to have these films categorized as ‘diverse’ and, therefore, seen as niche. There’s such range in the films, Bailey told me, that to just “call them all ‘black films’ really reduces their context, their variety, their differences and their power.”
The most important function of Toronto’s glittering premieres and sold-out screenings for films like Moonlight and I Am Not Your Negro, then, was to make them as visible and prestigious as any other major film.
Bailey told me on the opening night of the festival that he shuttled between the premieres of Antoine Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven with its diverse cast, to a screening of The Wedding Party from Nigeria, to a screening with 1,700 screaming fans for I Am Not Madam Bovary from China.
He said he left those movies with the distinct feeling that this would become “the new festival and the future of what we can do in movies.”