African Films Shine at the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival

By Dwight Brown NNPA Film Critic

In years past Black films from the U.S. were prominent at the Toronto International Film Festival. The Secret Live Of Bees, in 2008. Precious…, in 2009. In 2010, Black American films were noticeably absent. However, films about black life in Africa shined bright. These dispatches from the motherland, along with some big budget films, indies and foreign movies are worth a view.

Black Films From Africa Impress

First Grader (***1/2) – Sometimes truth is better than fiction. In this fact-based story an 84-year-old former Mau Mau warrior, Maruge (Oliver Musila Litondo), who helped liberate Kenya from brutal British rule, decides to go to school to learn to read. He beseeches a teacher, Jane (Naomie Harris), and enters the 1st grade. There’s 200 students, only 50 desks. A mixture of controversy and adulation ensue, jeopardizing Jane’s job and putting Maruge in danger. An octogenarian protagonist, children, and a courageous teacher – you have to root for them. Director Justin Chadwick turns Ann Peacock’s sensitive and inspiring script into the feel-good story of the festival. Bring a hanky; you’ll shed a tear. Then you’ll smile.

Life, Above All (***1/2) – Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a young girl, lives in Elandsdoom, a township in South Africa. Her hands are full. Her mother is dying, her stepfather is a drunk, her stepbrother and sister are unruly and neighbors gossip endlessly about her family. Based on the novel Chanda’s Secrets, this gripping allegory about pride, secrets and shame touches the heart in all the right places. Credit the gifted child actress, a strong screen adaptation, evocative cinematography and expert, intuitive direction by Oliver Schmitz for this emotionally satisfying and cleansing experience.

A Screaming Man (***) – There are themes in this evocative, thoughtful film by Mahamat-Saleh Haroun (Abouna) that transcend race, culture and country. Adam (Youssouf Djaoro), a fiftyish ex-swimming champion, tends the pool at a luxury hotel in N’Djamena, the capital of Chad. His 20-year-old son Abdel (Diouc Koma) is his assistant. Imagine Adam’s shock when his new boss demotes him and promotes his son. In the midst of a raging civil war that rocks Chad, the father must come to terms with aging, envy, anger, deceit and regret. If you’ve ever vacationed in a hotel and wondered what life was like behind closed doors, this will be a very revealing experience punctuated by social unrest.

State of Violence (*1/2) – Filmmaker Khalo Matabane’s first feature Conversations on a Sunday Afternoon gave audiences an eclectic walking tour of Johannesburg. This follow-up tells the story of a businessman (Fana Mokoena, Hotel Rwanda) and wife who return home one night and encounter an intruder. She is murdered. The killer escapes. Was it an act of revenge? This whodunit involves political and social implications. The cinematography is ugly (Conversations’ was beautiful). The characters are dull (Conversations’ were delightfully eccentric). The direction is pedestrian (Conversations’ was fresh).

Black American Actors in General Interest Films

Trust (**) – A 14-year-old girl (Liana Liberato) finds a new friend on line, Charlie. Her budding romance flies under the radar of her protective parents (Clive Owen and Catherine Keener). After a long courtship, she agrees to meet her distant lover. Turns out, he’s as old as sand and not the high school kid he pretended to be. It’s every parent’s nightmare – a devious online pedophile predator. Under the direction of David Schwimmer (yes that David, from TV’s Friends), the performances are inconsistent (Liberato and Owens are superb; Keener is miscast), the cinematography is downright ugly and the script dead-ends with a very unfulfilling ending. Viola Davis (Doubt), with great determination, plays a psychologist who’s the voice of reason.

Rabbit Hole (***) – A suburban couple (Nicole Kidman, Aaron Eckhart) frequents a grief management support group as they try to deal with the death of their son in this Pulitzer Prize-winning play turned coffee-table perfect film. Kidman and Eckhart emote like pros. Dianne Weist, as Kidman’s blue-collar, tell-it-like-it-is mother exudes a gutsy charm. Giancarlo Esposito plays the jazz musician boyfriend of the wife’s flaky sister. John Cameron Mitchell, who wrote and directed the very unconventional Hedwig and the Angry Inch, steps out of his comfort zone with this traditional suburban tale that is equal parts sterile and sensitive.

Major Films Vie For Oscars

127 Hours (**) — The story captured headlines: a cocky, young hiker treks solo around canyons in Moab, Utah, falls down a cavern and wedges his arm between a rock and a hard place. He escapes by cutting off his limb. Hard to fathom why director Danny Boyle, on the heels of his popular Academy Award-winning Slumdog Millionaire chose this feeble, one-note project. James Franco (Milk) stars as the outdoorsman who returns home five pounds lighter. Composer A.R. Rahman (Slumdog…) wrote the driving (over-ambitious) rock score. Boyle uses split screen and other devices in a vain attempt to make a mountain out of a molehill.

Conspirator (***) — It’s a subject matter ripe with drama, deception and intrigue, yet in the last half-century no filmmaker has dared recount the assassination of Abraham Lincoln. The lone woman (Robin Wright) charged in the conspiracy is brought to trial by a hostile government. A 28-year-old Union war hero turned lawyer (James McAvoy, Last King of Scotland) becomes her defense attorney in a trial that is predetermined. The history (script) is rich. The soft-focus cinematography is annoying. Direction by Robert Redford is solid. Performances by Wright, McAvoy and the supporting cast are exceptional.

Conviction (**1/2) – As kids, they got into petty crimes. As adults, she (Hilary Swank) married and settled down, but her brother (Sam Rockwell) stayed in trouble with the law. When he’s accused of killing a woman, jailed, tried and imprisoned, something in her heart tells her he’s innocent. To free him, she finishes her GED, goes to law school and becomes a lawyer to champion his case. The plotting follows the facts of a true story that involved a crooked cop and a wrongly convicted wretch. DNA evidence sheds truth. Another truth is that there is only enough drama in this well-intentioned movie for a Lifetime Network movie, not a theatrically released film.

Hereafter (**1/2) – Sometimes director Clint Eastwood is on his game (Unforgiven); sometimes he blunders (Gran Torino). This heartfelt but somewhat misguided look at three characters (woman, man, boy) dealing with death and its aftermath toys with the notion of an afterlife. Matt Damon is the only familiar face. Eastwood’s trademark lavish musical score can’t cover up the film’s weak spots. The highlight is a recreation of the tsunami that devastated Indonesia. The low point is the dull, predictable ending.

Let Me In (***) – The Twilight vampire film series are as compelling and haunting as an Abercrombie & Fitch commercial. This bewitching take on a tween, romantic bloodsucking horror film is far more eerie and affecting. Owen (Kodi Smit-McPhee, The Road) is a bullied young teen; he lives with his single mom in a motel-like apartment building. His insular life changes the day a young sullen lass (Chloe Moretz, Kick-Ass) and an older man move in next door. People start dying. Blood flows like the Nile. A certain adolescent shuns the daylight. Subtle, magnificently photographed and expertly directed (Matt Reeves). This orgy of killing resonates.

Town (***1/2) – Remember Bennifer? Back in the day Ben Affleck was no more than a Jay Leno punchline. These days Affleck is a consummate, artsy, crime-thriller-action director. He’s got a great eye for angles and framing, and an astute ability to balance dramatic scenes, action sequences and attractive location shots. Doug (Affleck), his buddy James (Jeremy Renner) and their bank-robbing crew have helped Charlestown, Massachusetts become the bank-robbing capital of the world. After one untidy theft, Doug stalks and romances an assistant bank manager (Rebecca Hall) who he’d held hostage previously. F.B.I. Agent Frawley (Jon Hamm, TV’s Mad Men) tracks the bad guys back to their crime-loving Boston neighborhood. Is Affleck the new Clint Eastwood?

A Foreign Gem

Biutiful (***) – Spanish actor Javier Bardem won a Best Actor award at the 2010 Cannes film festival for his role in this multi-plotted Euro-urban tale about a Barcelona street hustler who dabbles in the manufacturing of knock-off purses and the trafficking of illegal immigrants. An over-ambitious plotline (cancer, bipolar wife, deportations, accidental mass death) weighs film down. Outstanding cinematography (Rodrigo Prieto), sharp editing (Stephen Mirrione, Traffic), gifted direction (Alejandro González Iñárritu, Babel) and a very intense Bardem make this film worth a view.

African films took the lead. Black actors found a few roles. Oscar-contending movies premiered. Check them out this fall as they screen in your local theater.

For more information, visit the 2010 Toronto International Film Festival website: www.tiff.net/thefestival.