Black Boy Joy, Phony Allyship, Prison Life Among Black Filmmakers’ Themes at Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO – Against the backdrop of the writers’ and actors’ strikes, the Toronto International Film Festival welcomed moviegoers and journalists to the vibrant hub. While the festival that started September 7 lacked the glitz and glam of the stars this year due to the writers’ and actors’ strikes, which forbid striking members from promoting their work, there has been an assortment of stunning films centered made by Black filmmakers that continue to drive cinema forward.   

Here are some offerings that audiences should look for in the coming months.  

“Origin” 

Ava DuVernay’s fifth major motion picture may be her most ambitious release. The film based on the controversial book “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” by Isabel Wilkerson depicts Wilkerson’s journey of processing grief after the loss of her husband and mother by tackling the coalition between the caste system and racism. Aunjanue Ellis, hot off her Oscar-nominated role in “King Richard,” is touching as Wilkerson. It’s through her lens that viewers go on a journey of dealing with grief while looking at racism and its ties to economic gains via the caste system of social class divisions. There are many moments in “Origin” that will leave audiences uncomfortable as Wilkerson looks at the eight pillars of the caste system and how they have been used to practice systemic racism.   

Comes to theaters late fall. 

“We Grown Now”  

Black boy joy isn’t something we witness very often on the big screen, but in “We Grown Now,” we observe the joy of a boyhood bond amid life in the Cabrini-Green Homes in Chicago. Malik (Blake Cameron James) and Eric (Gian Knight Ramirez) were born into this community. They are youngsters who come from loving households but must deal with the racial/economic problems that make up Chicago. They are each other’s pillars of support. Minhal Baig, the director of this touching film, does something unusual in this type of environment. She demonstrates the humanity of the people who live in these neglected places. She encourages the audience to recognize their humanity and illustrates how these two boys’ innocence is steadily eroding because America refuses to let Black boys be children.   

The film is looking for distribution.   

“American Fiction” 

Everyone claims to know what it’s like to be Black. “American Fiction,” based on Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure,” investigates how white phony allyship and inclusiveness frequently harm Black writers who write about the Black experience. These gatekeepers, who consider themselves allies but refuse to educate themselves on the authentic Black experience, prefer caricatures to reality.  Thelonious “Monk” Ellison, played by Jeffrey Wright, builds a persona to go with his phony book in this compelling story. Ellison’s goal is to demonstrate that the industry does not value diversity. He is, however, unprepared for his hoax to become a rousing success, providing him with financial security. A series of events follow that lead him to confront his tarnished family bonds and analyze his part in his mangled road to success. This film also stars Tracee Ellis Ross, Erika Alexander, Sterling K. Brown and Issa Rae and is written and directed by Cord Jefferson. 

To be released on an as yet undecided date. 

“Sing Sing”   

This film, named for the prison of the same name in Ossining, New York, explores how incarcerated people serving long sentences use the art of theater to escape confinement. Led by a moving performance by Colman Domingo with support from ex-inmates who participated in the Rehabilitation Through The Arts (RTA) program. We see how the power of words helps these hardened men tap into their humanity. Director Greg Kwedar forces the audience to see that there is deep remorse over sins committed. He shows how these men place themselves in emotional imprisonment to survive the hardships of prison. It is however the late-night conversations between John “Devine G” Whitfield (Domingo) and prison neighbor Mike Mike (played by Sean San Jose) that are some of the most touching of the film. In these hushed moments, each man reveals his fears, dreams and regrets.   

No release date has been set.  

“I Don’t Know Who You Are” 

A debilitating sexual assault forces Toronto musician Benjamin, played by Mark Clennon, into despair.  He urgently needs to raise $900 in order to obtain PrEP treatment in case he has contracted HIV. He just has 72 hours to complete this task. As he grapples with the onslaught that leads to this monetary catastrophe, Benjamin is unable to accept blessings such as a new romance, a growing music career, or support from friends. The film, based on filmmaker M.H. Murray’s personal experience, depicts how males who are assaulted are not provided the support they need to cope with trauma and financial burdens. Clennon’s performance will likely spark discussion on how the world interprets gay men’s trauma, which is often disregarded.  

No release date has been given   

The films above showcase why the Toronto International Film Festival is one the best festivals when it comes to centering Black creatives or art centering Black talent. Under CEO Cameron Bailey, who is Black, the festival continues to show that true diversity comes from allowing artists to tell unique stories that engage and inform moviegoers from around the world.  

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