Black Films & Artists Matter at the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival

TIFF has always been a haven for black films and artists. And now, in this year of BLM, it has stepped up its game showing a particular reverence for African diaspora films. In 2020, film festivals are finding creative ways to present movies to a vast audience as safely as possible. TIFF took a holistic approach. It featured digital screenings, live virtual events, limited capacity theater screenings and drive-in showings. 

Check out these noteworthy films that will premiere in your local theaters, on VOD or streaming services in the coming months leading up to the awards season.

BLACK FILMS, FILMMAKERS AND ARTISTS

40 Years A Prisoner (**1/2) In 1978, MOVE, a group of black revolutionary activists, braced for a confrontation with the police in their commune in a Philadelphia rowhouse. Law enforcement was on their doorstep, breaking in. A baby was killed and an officer died. Nine members of the commune, who embraced black power, veganism and an anarcho-primitivism philosophy, were sentenced to 30-40 years in prison. Debbie and Mike Africa were among the convicted, and she gave birth to a child while incarcerated. Forty years later, their son Mike’s fight to get his family paroled is the subject of filmmaker Tommy Oliver’s documentary. 

Days leading up to the violent incident, the event and its aftermath are recollected by journalists, neighbors, cult members, ex-policemen and politicians who recall the explosive rhetoric and formidable hostilities on both sides. Also, on view is the notoriously aggressive Philly police force and a fiery Mayor Frank Rizzo. But somehow, finding out what really made MOVE members tick is never really clear. Mike wants his parents freed: “I’m committed to them the way they were committed to me.” Audiences might feel that way too if the doc had dug deeper into MOVE’s origins. Viewers never find out what the group ever accomplished. To many they were an enigma before screening the film and will remain one after. 

Akilla’s Escape (**) A drug deal goes awry. A seasoned 40-year-old dealer, Akilla Brown (Saul Williams), captures one of the interloping thieves, a teenage Jamaican boy named Sheppard (Thamela Mpumlwana). The teen reminds him of his younger self, when he was a wannabe gangsta in a group called the Garrison Army. With a script by Charles Officer and Wendy Motion Brathwaite and under the direction of Officer, the overly rich plotline becomes a bit fuzzy as it drifts between Toronto and Brooklyn and the ‘90s and 2020 with little dexterity. A very loud soundtrack (Robert Del Naja and Saul Williams) pumps up the emotions but can’t make up for a story that’s way too jumbled, even with its cautionary crime doesn’t pay theme. Having Mpumlwana play both Sheppard and the younger Akilla adds to the confusion. Clichéd dialogue often runs in platitudes. The action scenes are never up to the standards of a good crime/action/thriller. Tighter editing and a more fine-tuned script would have helped. Listening to the Jamaican patois is a pleasure. 

Concrete Cowboy (***1/2) This very endearing father/son drama is as emotionally powerful as The Great Santini and as respectful to Black cowboy culture as Miss Juneteenth. A worried mother (Elizabeth Priestley) forces her troubled teen son (Caleb McLaughlin) to live with his estranged dad (Idris Elba) for a summer in Philly. Their bonding is rocky. Domineering dad. Son who hangs with a juvenile delinquent (Jharrel Jerome, Moonlight). Tough love? Son: “I ain’t staying here.” Dad: “Once you step out, that door stays locked until morning!” Evocative images? A horse lives in the dining room of their rowhouse. 

The script (Dan Walser and Ricky Staub) examines the inequity of gentrification, the failures of local politicians and need for home ownership in the black community. The story is based on the novel Ghetto Cowboy by Greg Neri and takes its cues from the true-life Fletcher Street Stables. It’s a 100-year-old horsemanship community in North Philadelphia that has been a refuge to troubled youth. First-time feature film director Ricky Staub sets a wondrous and dramatic tone that never wanes. The entire ensemble cast (including Byron Bowers, Lorraine Toussaint and Cliff “Method Man” Smith) shines. British actor Idris Elba morphs into another iconic American characters with an ease and urban drawl that makes the dad figure prominent, in an Oscar-worthy way. Visons of black cowboys galloping on horseback in The City of Brotherly Love are indelible. 

Good Joe Bell (***1/2) Most of Mark Wahlberg’s performances are tied to ultra-masculine roles (pugilist in The Fighter; bounty hunter in Transformers: Age of Extinction). In this touching and sobering family drama, his interpretation of an Oregon father in search of redemption lets him give his most layered, nuanced and sensitive performance yet. In an effort to alert the world to the perils of bullying, Joe Bell (Wahlberg) sets out on a cross-country trek to bring his consciousness-raising speeches to schools, community centers—anyone who will listen. He is supported on his journey by his wife (Connie Britton, TVs Nashville) and his vulnerable gay teenage son (Reid Miller, TV’s Play by Play). 

Screenwriters Larry McMurtry and Diana Ossana, (Brokeback Mountain) based their poignant script on real characters. With director Reinaldo Marcus Green (Monsters and Men) guiding the production and cinematographer Jacques Jouffret behind the camera, the footage, from highway stretches to football games and local diners looks well composed and staged. Green gets superb performances from the entire cast—especially Wahlberg who should win an Oscar nom. The film has an emotional core that hooks you from the first frame until the final epilogue describing the burdens of the real Joe Bell. Excellent and heartfelt.

Memory House (**1/2) Colonialism is over in Brazil, but its remnants are not. An Indigenous–Afro Brazilian man from the rural north, Cristovam (Antônio Pitanga), has spent decades employed at a milk factory in the south. As the owners try to save money, he’s victimized by his job and is the subject of ridicule and physical abuse in the vastly white Austrian heritage community where he lives. 

First-time writer/director João Paulo Miranda Maria examines ingrained racism in this modern allegory. As played by 81-year-old actor Antônio Pitanga, the lead character exhibits a natural vulnerability initially that inspires empathy for him and hate for his tormentors. However, the film’s mixture of mystical elements (visions, chants and animals) and harsh reality, though ambitious, don’t gel well. Also, watching the elderly man be tormented for 93 minutes, without a real payoff, will test the audience’s patience. Cinematographer Benjamín Echazarreta (A Fantastic Woman) shoots footage that’s mesmerizing, especially in an opening sequence with Cristovam in a silver hazmat suit looking like an astronaut. In addition, there is something so spiritual and profound about Pitanga’s performance.

Night of the Kings (***/12) La Maca is a notorious, large-scale Côte d’Ivoire prison that is ruled by its inmates. Prisoners are led by Barbe Noire aka Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, Les Misérables), a king who is under siege by factions readying a coup. When a young man (Koné Bakary) is imprisoned, he’s scared to death. Slyly Barbe Noire deflects attention to a mystical red moon in the night sky and anoints the new inmate as a griot who sees the future and past. To survive the kid must convincingly weave personal anecdotes and historic events into a story that will charm the mob.

With this venture, Ivory Coast writer/director Philippe Lacôte firmly establishes his place among the greatest African filmmakers: Souleymane Cissé (Yeelen), Ousmane Sembene (Guelwaar) and Abderrahmane Sissako (Timbuktu). He creates a unique story, assembles a brillant cast, sets them in an ominous penitentiary and lets them fend for themselves. Barbe Noire: “If I lose my protection I go from a hyena to a lamb.” The red moon aspects add a supernatural effect. Elements of dance, acrobatics, art and theater interact perfectly with a plot that’s as rich as any Shakespeare has conjured. Perfectly shot, edited and scored. You’ve never seen a prison movie like this.

 One Night in Miami (***1/2) Kemp Powers’ provocative play One Night in Miami fictionalized a real night on February 25th in 1964 when boxer Cassius Clay, football legend Jim Brown, activist Malcom X and soul singer Sam Cooke met at the Hampton House Motel in Liberty City. Actress Regina King, in her feature film directing debut with Powers as her screenwriter, makes the play cinematic. 

Clay (Eli Goree, Race) has just whooped Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston in Miami Beach. But due to segregation laws, he can’t stay on the beach and gravitates to the black side of Miami Dade County. As he, Brown, Malcolm and Cook talk, their discussions turn to social, political, racial, sports and artistic issues. Says Malcolm (Kingsley Ben-Adir, Trespass Against Us) about the empowerment of black people: “What’s good news for the sheep might be bad news for the wolf.” When Clay, who will change his name to Muhammad Ali, announces he’s going to be a Muslim, Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr., Hamilton) asks Brown (Aldis Hodge, Clemency) if he will convert too. Brown: “S—t! Have you tasted my grandma’s pork chops?!”

The words and performances are so enlightening your eyes will stay glued to the screen. As a director, King makes a lot of right choices. The ensemble acting is commendable—with a special nod to Odom Jr. for using his  silky voice to sing Sam Cooke songs. The Clay/Liston boxing match is neatly shot (cinematographer Tami Reiker, Carnivàl) and the time period, locations and places are perfectly rendered all under the warm blanket of a hypnotic score (Terence Blanchard, Harriet). There are a few times when scenes stagnate in a motel room so what should remain movielike feels too much like a play. Otherwise, King has been handed a gift by playwright Kemp Powers and she has turned it into a treasure. 

The Water Man (**) Actor David Oyelowo (Selma) makes an odd choice for his directing debut. It’s a script (Emily A. Needell) that centers around a family in which the mom (Rosario Dawson) is terminally ill and the father (Oyelowo) and son (Lonni Chavis, TV’s This Is Us) don’t get along. And so the boy sets out on a journey to find the Water Man, a forest creature with magical powers, in hopes that the monster can heal his mom. It’s a far-fetched fantasy kids’ drama, told from a young boy’s point of view. Though Oyelowo’s direction is decent, the story never takes you to that special place and the son’s venture into the forest rarely feels adventurous. Sightings of Bigfoot are too brief. Special effects are limp at best. The cast is earnest and the tech elements (musical score, cinematography editing) are solid enough to make the movie coherent, but not much more. The only line of dialogue that stands out is dad’s admission: “I would take a short life with your mother rather than a long one without her.” 

The Way I See It (***1/2) Chief Official White House Photographer Pete Souza’s photos show that there are clear differences between the Obama administration and the Trump government. His evocative photos tell the story in this illuminating documentary by Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble). From his close proximity to President Obama, he witnessed a lot: “I know what happened in the room. (that’s why) I’m so afraid of what’s going on in the Oval Office (now).” Souza, a historian with a camera captures fleeting moments both big and small. Intimate family time, historic achievements (reactions to Bin Laden’s killing) and even Obama blocking a shot from a pro basketball player. Prepared to be moved and awed in ways you wouldn’t expect. It’s a trip down memory lane that should excite citizens about the possibilities for tomorrow. Aloe Blacc sings the soundtrack song The Future: “…won’t let my passion die…the future belongs to me.” A surprisingly galvanizing documentary.

NOTEWORTHY FILMS

Another Round (Druk) (***) Is this film about the perils of over-drinking, or the joy of staying drunk? Four male teachers in Denmark come across the writing of a theorist who asserts that humans are born with a deficit blood level of alcohol of -0.05%. And that to be naturally balanced, people should have at least that percentage of booze in their veins—every day. Embracing that hypothesis, a history teacher (Mads Mikkelsen, The Hunt),  soccer coach (Thomas Bo Larsen), choir conductor (Lars Ranthe,) and a psychology prof (Magnus Millang) become walking drunks. Falling down in supermarkets, snorting alcohol and wetting their beds. If this were an American movie, there would be a moral to the story. Instead director Thomas Vinterberg and writers Vinterberg and Tobias Lindholm aren’t passing judgement, they’re just showing the possibilities and focusing on a debauchery and comradery with no apologies. Excellent and outrageous performances prevail. Few people outside of Denmark know actor Mads Mikkelsen was previously a gymnast and dancer. Viewers who stick around long enough can watch him get his Christopher Walken on. A very pleasurable and sinful experience that could easily be made into an American movie à la The Hangover.

The Boy from Medellín (***) Colombian reggaeton singer José Álvaro Osorio Balvin, aka “J. Balvin,” comes home to Medellín for a pivotal concert. It’s his first performance in a large stadium since he became famous in the Latinx community. The city and country are in turmoil with strikes and demonstrations. J tries to remain out of the fray, but is being pressured to take a stand. Director Matthew Heineman (City of Ghosts and A Private War) is accustomed to working in places of political unrest. Still he and his camera crew (Heineman, Drew Daniels, Clair Popkin, Max Preiss) wisely focus their attention on the personal side of Balvin, his battles with depression and inner demons. This documentary has heart, lively characters and rousing concert footage. Balvin is disarming and hearing him rap/sing his jazzy Latinx hit song “La Canción,” which he recorded with Puerto Rico’s Bad Bunny, will likely bring him a whole new host of reggaeton fans. 

New Order (***1/2) Mexican director Michel Franco’s New Order digs into places where Alfonso Cuarón’s Oscar-winning movie Roma wouldn’t tread. A wedding is about to take place at a mansion on the posh side of Mexico City. The bride Marianne (Naian Gonzaléz Norvind) becomes angry when her wealthy family refuses to substantially help an ex-employee whose wife is on her deathbed and in need of costly medical care. Meanwhile there are violent protest in the streets as the working-class rebels against the status quo. A deadly military guerilla movement robs, kidnaps and kills rich people. With an astute and biting script, Franco indicts the upper class and a corrupt government in ways few filmmakers dare. He throws viewers into the midst of life-or-death conflict. No one is safe. Not the filthy rich or the poor people who deserve a break. Excellent acting, cinematography and editing will keep you on the edge of your seat. On view is the bourgeoise’s worst nightmare. The astonishing and disturbing class warfare is more alarming, compelling and macabre than that seen in Parasite

Penguin Bloom (***) Naomi Watts (21 Grams) infuses the true-life character Sam Bloom with a deep but frustrated emotional sensibility that carries the film. On a family vacation in Thailand, the Australian mother has a bad accident, which leaves her paralyzed from the waist down. Back home, her recovery hits a snag and she sinks into an angst that makes her combative and a drain on her family. Her husband (Andrew Lincoln) is attentive, her mother (Jacki Weaver, Silver Linings Playbook) overbearing and kayaking coach (Rachel House, Moana) inspiring. Still, it is the presence of a wounded magpie dubbed Penguin that brings her back into the light. Improbable story, but a fact-based retelling. Director Glendyn Ivin never quite crosses the line into overt sentimentality, but comes close. The film sensitively focusses on a mother who has lost the ability to mother. Should attract an adult audience. Loose ends are held together by Watts who gives the film a certain state of grace.

Pieces of a Woman (***1/2) Last year the Marriage Story set a high bar for graphic onscreen marital conflict. Hungarian director Kornél Mundruczó (White God) equals that with a voyeuristic look at an imploding coupling based on a potent script by Kata Wéber (White God). Martha (Vanessa Kirby, Mission: Impossible – Fallout), an executive, and her insecure husband Sean (Shia LaBeouf), construction worker, are expecting their first child. They’ve partnered with a midwife to have the baby at home. Fate is not on their side. This lesson in dealing with the aftermath of tragedy evokes feelings of despair, grief, anger and fear in ways rarely seen in movies. Sean: “Why are you being so cold to me?” Martha: “You’re teaming up with my mother behind my back!” And mom (Ellen Burstyn) piles on too: “If you had done it my way, you’d be holding your baby now.” Some of the high drama tips over into the soap opera genre. Yet, Mundruczó holds the reins tight enough to reel the film back to where it belongs. One of Shia LaBeouf’s most textured performances. Vanessa Kirby clearly deserves an Oscar nomination for Best Actress. She is that good, the role is that great and now she is the leader of the pack. 

The Father (***1/2) Everyone will find themselves in this position: either taking care of aging parents or being an aging adult in need of care. Toss dementia into the mix and the drama becomes even deeper. An elderly British father’s (Anthony Hopkins) grip on reality declines in fragments, with family members and caregivers moving in and out his consciousness like vaguely familiar ghosts.

The screenplay by Christopher Hampton and writer/director Florian Zeller doesn’t take this dilemma on in a straightforward way. Instead the audience witnesses his experiences in pieces. It’s a plotline that isn’t easy to follow. So it’s lucky that Zeller’s skillful direction give audiences a clear view of a life that can’t distinguish between yesterday, today and tomorrow. Daughter (Oliva Colman, Oscar winner The Favourite): “What’s the matter Dad?” Father: “There’s something funny going on.” As the patriarch continues to lose his footing it will break your heart. Wondrous cinematography (Ben Smithard), clever editing (Yorgos Lamprinos) and an increasingly touching musical score. Hopkins wrings every last feeling of loss and despondency out of the character and will likely be seated in the front row Oscar night. If there is an Oscar night. 

For more information about the Toronto International Film Festival go to https://tiff.net/. Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com and BlackPressUSA.com