By Dwight Brown NNPA News Wire Film Critic
Nearly 500,000 film lovers flocked to the 2019 Toronto International Film Festival, screening hundreds of films from all over the world. Artistry and diversity, the hallmarks of TIFF, were on view.
Black artists, filmmakers and films were a key part of the mix. Big budget movies, small indie films, documentaries and shorts filled out the innovative programming. Check out the best of the best and the most noteworthy.
BLACK FILMS & BLACK FILMMAKERS
Atlantics (***) An ill-fated romance in Senegal takes center stage in this visually stunning ode to passion and yearning. French actress-turned-filmmaker Mati Diop won the Cannes’ Grand Prix for co-writing this love triangle between a young woman (Mama Sané), an out-of-work construction worker (Ibrahima Traoré) she loves, and a wealthy fiancé (Babacar Sylla) she disdains. With Claire Mathon behind the camera, Dakar looks picturesque and the composition of each scene is as perfect as the lighting. Diop tells her story using lots of imagery and long scenes that test patience. The beautiful cast looks like they stepped out of Essence Magazine. Themes of class divide, spirits from beyond and girlfriends who like to party often crowd what could have been a simple love story. Still, the romance in this film prevails.
Clemency (***). The debate over the death penalty gets a new spark with this very personal look at a humanistic warden (Alfre Woodard) who makes end-of-life experiences as compassionate as possible for those on death row. It’s as if Warden Bernadine Williams goes on cruise-control as she and her staff strap in inmates for that lethal injection. She thinks she’s fully prepared for everything. Then there’s an inevitable catastrophe that magnifies the toll her job takes on her psyche and husband (Wendell Pierce) and sobriety. Writer/director Chinonye Chukwu’s message is that executing criminals is inhumane. Slow steady drama builds and builds. Woodard creates a protagonist who is equally likeable and unapproachable. Her steely performance is complemented by supporting cast members: Aldis Hodge as the cop-killer next in line for death; Richard Schiff as the convict’s hopeful lawyer; Danielle Brooks as a person from the prisoner’s past.
Dolemite Is My Name (****) When you need encouragement, comedian Rudy Ray Moore (Eddie Murphy) commands, “Put your weight on it.” It’s a mantra he takes to heart as he shifts his talent from struggling comic and spoken-word pioneer to novice DIY indie filmmaker. Moore’s alter-ego is Dolemite, a feisty, martial-arts-loving character he pushes to the front of his first movie. Under the guidance of director Craig Brewer (Hustle & Flow), with a hilarious bio/script by Scott Alexander and Larry Karaszewski, Eddie Murphy makes a splashing film comeback as the outrageously bold and determined artist who became an integral part of the 1970s Blaxploitation era. Never one to take no for an answer, the brash Moore gives Murphy a great opportunity to work his comic genius. And he does, along with a hilarious dream team who milks laughs: Keegan-Michael Key, Craig Robinson, Tituss Burgess, Wesley Snipes, Mike Epps, and the shameless scene stealer Luenell (I Got the Hook Up 2). Add in cameos by T.I. and Snoop Dogg and a plotline that leads to euphoria and this bit of hilarity becomes an amazing crowd-pleaser and an inspiring movie.
Harriet (***) The responsibility for getting Harriet Tubman’s legacy as an abolitionist and the history of the Underground Railroad told right is a weight few filmmakers could carry. Director Kasi Lemmons (Eve’s Bayou) is up to the task and has a vision. Her efforts are helped by Terence Blanchard’s emotionally charged musical score, John Toll’s evocative cinematography (he makes everyone’s complexion incandescent) and Paul Tazewell’s costumes. The script, by Lemmons and Gregory Allen Howard, pulls the characters into one epic tale of inhumanity, humanity and legendary acts of bravery. Cynthia Erivo (Tony winner The Color Purple; film Widows) plays “Minty” (Tubman’s nickname) with conviction. The evildoers (Joe Alwyn, Jennifer Nettles) and saviors (Leslie Odom Jr., Janelle Monáe) are perfectly portrayed. Lemmons can be heavy on the flashbacks (Black and white clips of a family breakup seem redundant), and the footage looks like a cross between an art/indie film and a Lifetime network movie. But overall, she has accomplished a difficult mission that brings the life of an extraordinary liberator into full view. Finally, the film medium has produced a public record of Harriet Tubman’s heroism. Now it’s time for Tubman’s image to be on the $20 bill.
Just Mercy (***) A young Harvard educated lawyer, Bryan Stevenson (Michael B. Jordan), could have his pick of law firms, instead he heads to rural Alabama to set up a small law practice that seeks to reverse death row sentences for wrongfully convicted prisoners. There are many in need, but one of his primary clients is Walter McMillian (Jamie Foxx), who was convicted of killing a white woman. The film is set in 1989 and stars Jordan, but if you close your eyes and imagine a young Sidney Poitier in the lead role, you’ll get a feel for the tone of this well-intentioned but typical crime drama. Director Destin Daniel Cretton’s approach to the genre is formulaic, but gets the job done. Cretton and co-writer Andrew Lanham use the real lawyer Stevenson’s award-winning non-fiction book Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption as source material to depict poor Black men being railroaded into death sentences in the south—well into the late ‘80s. Foxx gives his best performance since Ray. Jordan breaks out of his normal hero-ish mold to play a goodwill attorney, and that’s refreshing. Supporting cast of Brie Larson, Rob Morgan, Tim Blake Nelson, Rafe Spall, O’Shea Jackson Jr., and Karan Kendrick are particularly interesting to watch. A very northern and stiff lawyer learns how to acclimate to a friendlier rural southern black community and it’s a startling juxtaposition that adds depth to the proceedings
Waves (**1/2) Filmmaker Trey Edward Shults made an impressive directorial debut with the ultra-realistic family drama Krisha. This return to familial themes focuses on a wealthy Black household. A dad (Sterling K. Brown) and stepmom (Renée Elise Goldsberry)—helicopter parents—pressure their teenage son (Kelvin Harrison Jr, Assassination Nation), a high-school wrestling champion, to succeed. He, however, is clandestinely living large, beset with injuries and having major girlfriend problems. His younger sister (Taylor Russel) waits in the wings for the attention she deserves. Shults’ script and direction jump-start start this teen saga with a kinetic verve reminiscent of filmmaker Harmony Korine’s wild and debauched Spring Breakers. Quick, flashy MTV-like edits (editors Isaac Hagy and Shults), a heavy-bass musical score (Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross) and an envious playlist of hip artists set the tone. The look of the film is perfect: production design by Elliott Hostetter; set decoration by Adam Willis; cinematography by Drew Daniels; and costume design by Rachel Dainer-Best. The plotline in Acts I and II leads to a clichéd stereotypical interpretation of a young Black man’s life, which would be suspect coming from a Black filmmaker, and is almost insulting coming from a white one. Act III takes the film in a completely different direction, which is fraught with heavy emotion that doesn’t always ring true. Something like TV’s overly touchy-feely This Is Us. In fact, watching Sterling K. Brown shed tears on screen, like he does incessantly on the TV show, is like watching a rainstorm on a tropical island. It’s an event, but it’s no surprise.