2018 Toronto International Film Festival sees Black films and artists thriveBy Dwight Brown, NNPA Film Critic / November 9, 2018
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Nearly 500,000 film lovers flocked to the 2018 Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) screening more than 250 films from 80 countries. Artistry and diversity, the hallmarks of TIFF, were on view.
Black artists, filmmakers and films were a key part of the soiree. 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. Here are just of few of the new movies.
BLACK FILMS & BLACK FILMMAKERS
Angel (***) This moody, gorgeously crafted portrait of two disparate souls who tryst with each other one fateful night, is a hypnotic ode to damaged people looking for a night of consoling. In Senegal, Fae (Fatou N’Diaye) is a tall willowy sex worker, as gorgeous as a super model. It’s no wonder the world-famous Belgian cyclist Thierry (Vincent Rottiers) is smitten by her. They meet, bond, go to a hotel for a rendezvous but only one survives the night. Writer/director Koen Mortier captures every alluring moment; gracefully paralleling the two lives, their very different careers and separate worlds. Special nod to cinematographer Nicolas Karakatsanis for the superb lighting and rich colors that make Senegal look magical.
Green Book (****) The Negro Motorist Green Book was the hotel travel guide African Americans used in the ‘30s to the ‘60s to find safe places to stay in the segregated South. The most unlikely director of all, Peter Farrelly (Dumb and Dumber) takes on this true-life tale about Tony Lipp (Viggo Mortensen), a bouncer at New York’s Copacabana nightclub in 1962 who takes on a job as a driver for a Dr. Shirley. The racist rough-around-the-edges Italian-American brute thinks he will be working for a medical doctor. In fact, Dr. Don Shirley (Mahershala Ali, Moonlight) is a Ph.D., African American classical pianist whose record company hires Tony to drive and protect the effete musician as he tours—especially south of the Mason Dixon line. The coupling of the two polar opposites (think The Odd Couple) is fascinating to watch. There isn’t a wasted second in this perfectly told, shot (Sean Porter), edited (Patrick J. Don Vito), scored (Kris Bowers) and directed drama/comedy. Mortensen strikes the right balance of Italian bravura and class clown. Robert DeNiro must be envious; this is the kind of role he’d eat for lunch. Linda Cardellini as Tony’s more accepting wife is pitch perfect. Mahershala Ali switches gears with ease from playing a hardened drug dealer in Moonlight to portraying a refined artist with great dignity and many secrets in this heart-warming crowd-pleaser. Expect Oscar nominations for the film, actors, director and screenplay. After all, Green Book won TIFF’s prestigious 2018 Grolsch People’s Choice Award, an award voted on by festival goers.
If Beale Street Could Talk (***) Unlike his film Moonlight, this Barry Jenkins screenplay, an adaptation of the James Baldwin novel, won’t be remembered for its innovative storyline. Instead, audiences will never forget the sumptuous cinematography (James Laxton), lush and atmospheric musical score (Nicholas Britell) and the evocative production design that impeccably set mood, tone and time period. Shrouded underneath the exemplary but heavy-weight production elements is an ever so slight love story about a young Black couple (KiKi Layne and Stephan James) who endure racism, police malfeasance and wrongful incarceration in 1960s New York City. Regina King plays a concerned mom and turns in the performance of her career. Style over substance makes this film imperfect. The spirit of Baldwin’s book seems lost, except in one vibrant scene when the families of the couple meet and all hell breaks loose.
The Public (***) Emilio Estevez explores the plight of public libraries that have become community centers and refuges for the homeless. His script and direction turn a story about a sit-in by destitute people who have nowhere to go on a cold wintry Cincinnati night into a police stand-off with political ramifications. Estevez plays the head librarian who sticks up for the downtrodden; Jeffrey Wright portrays his boss, with Alec Baldwin as a negotiator and Christian Slater slithering around as a conniving politician. The plotline has a number of surprises that are quite touching. The likable ensemble cast also includes Michael K. Williams, Gabrielle Union, Richard T. Jones, Jena Malone and Jacob Vargas. Humorous, impactful and poignant. With a little extra tooling, would also make a great Broadway play.
Quincy (***) Not many Bee bop era musicians are still alive to connect the dots between that art form and rap music. Quincy Jones is more than happy to do just that as he recollects his pioneering career in the music and entertainment industry. He starts with his childhood in Chicago in the ‘30s and ’40s, being abandoned by his schizophrenic mother, playing with Lionel Hampton as a teenager and a career-altering gig arranging an album for Dinah Washington. Then writing and arranging for Count Basie, Frank Sinatra and Michael Jackson, scoring films and winning Grammys become a part of his portfolio. The more personal side of his life is captured in interviews conducted over a three-year period as his daughter actress/writer Rashida Jones and filmmaker Alan Hicks chronicle Jones prepping, producing and directing the opening show for the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C. Marriages, children, an aneurysm and drinking problem fill out the warts-and-all bio/doc. In so many ways, Quincy is an integral part of American history.
The Weekend (***1/2) Writer/director Stella Meghie, a Toronto homegirl, is a champ at creating biting comedies (Jean of the Joneses) and now she’s in the romantic comedy game with this impeccably told, dry-wit take on a triad that pits a tart-tongued comedienne (Sasheer Zamata, Saturday Night Live) against her ex-lover (Tone Bell) and his new girlfriend (DeWanda Wise). The three gather at her mom’s (Kym Whitley) bed & breakfast country inn in California. The dynamics intensify when a handsome hotel guest (Y’Lan Noel) flirts with the comic. Excellent ensemble acting. Under Meghie’s guidance the footage is always lively, awkward, funny and sardonic. Robi Botos’ musical score features R&B, Reggae and African rhythms that embody a pan-Africanism that is beguiling. This is the ultimate date movie, if you like making fun of your ex’s new lover. Sweet revenge brings hearts together. Who knew?
Widows (**1/2) The very visually gifted director Steve McQueen has built a solid, quick-rising and award-winning career based on his talent and the shrewd project choices he makes from unique concepts. Hunger, Shame and 12 Years a Slave are all distinctive. Widows is not. It’s a low-concept story (Gillian Flynn, McQueen) about some widows (Viola Davis, Michelle Rodriguez, Elizabeth Debicki) whose husbands (Liam Neeson and others) are killed as they‘re committing a robbery. The sudden deaths leave their spouses in debt to other gangsters (Brian Tyree Henry, Daniel Kaluuya) or just plain destitute. And so, out of desperation, the women plot their own heist. Marginal plot. Nice direction, after all McQueen is genius. Yet the payoff for this slick production is no better than results you’d get from watching any ordinary crime-thriller. An all-star cast goes through the motions leading up to a less than fulfilling ending. Passable, but most will expect better.
Visit NNPA News Wire Film Critic Dwight Brown at DwightBrownInk.com.