In its fifth year, the Toronto Black Film Festival (TBFF) has established a stable foundation for future generations to build on. Smartly taking place during Black History month, the festival not only strives to showcase stories and filmmakers that highlight the black experience in cinema, but also helps to facilitate professional growth for those looking to advance in the film industry. Whether it is through workshops, Master Class sessions with prominent filmmakers and industry professionals, or community outreach programs, the Toronto Black Film festival has shown a commitment to promoting diversity in all facets of cinema.
This year the festival even presented Academy Award winner Louis Gossett Jr. with the Lifetime Achievement Award. Gossett Jr. joins a prestigious list of winners that include award recipients such as Alfre Woodard and Fred Williamson.
One of the things I have always appreciated about this festival, aside from the fact that you can enjoy tasty Caribbean dishes while watching a film, is the overall inclusive nature of the festival. This is not only reflected in the diverse audiences, but also the types of films screened at the TBFF. Showcasing over 40 films, from 20 countries, there is no shortage of stories that take viewers around the globe while touching on shared experiences.
Reflecting on some of the films I saw at the festival this year, politics, love and music were some of the themes that stood out.
Take for example Marcos Barbery and Sam Russell’s sensational documentary By Blood, which explores Indigenous Americans of African descent fighting to regain their tribal citizenship. In this eye-opening film Barbery and Russell chart the turbulent racial history of Oklahoma from the days when the five major indigenous tribes owned black slaves to the modern constitutional battle that the black descents, known as Freedmen, find themselves in just to have their heritage recognized. Explaining how the “by blood” policy has unfairly marginalized Freedmen, and touching on how groups like the Cherokee tribe justify their actions under the guise that their indigenous sovereignty is being attacked, By Blood is a thought-provoking work that successfully gets under the audience’s skin through the numerous levels of injustice on display.
Another film that explored a culture at odds with itself is the Nigerian thriller 76. The film focuses on the predicament that soldier Joseph Dewa (Ramay Nouah) finds himself in when he becomes aware of plot to assassinate the Head-of-State, General Murtala Mohammed. Inspired by the real-life failed military coup of 1976, director Izu Ojukwu’s film plays out like a taut political thriller in the first half before settling into the rhythms of an investigative procedural. Though the latter section meanders a bit, Ojukwu crafts an intriguing tale that effectively uses the intercultural marriage between Dewa and his wife, Suze (Rita Dominic), to provide context to the political and personal divide many in Nigeria struggled with at the time.
While the union of marriage plays a supporting role in 76, it is a key element to Saquan Jones and Erin Ryan’s relationship drama Love Isn’t Enough. The story revolves around the rough patch that Charles (Shadner Ifrene) and Amanda’s (Ashley Morgan Bloom) marriage hits when the issue of race, he is black and she is Jewish, threatens to rip apart everything they have built together. Jumping back and forth in time to show both happier times and moments of conflict, Jones and Ryan do not shy away from the tough discussions regarding the social pressures and assumptions that add to modern racial tensions. Anchored by a script that is often a biting, and at times humorous, commentary on our racial hang ups, Love Isn’t Enough is an engaging film that shows love can triumph over hate if we are willing to let it.
Love is also in the air for the characters in Oxford Gardens though Obi Emelonye’s film fails to make the audience’s heart flutter. Part of the reason for this is that the film wants to be both a life affirming romance and a heart-wrenching tearjerker, but lacks the subtly needed to be successful in either area. The plot involves an ex-boxer haunted by his past who meets a woman that only has a few days to live. Agreeing to help the woman achieve her bucket list of items, the pair spends the day roaming around London building a friendship while learning a lot about themselves in the process. When characters are not telegraphing clichéd dialogue, such as “I am a broken man” and “you have warmed my heart before it goes cold”, Oxford Gardens’ multiple endings and unnecessary need to beat the audience over the head with its symbolism ensure that the film will not linger in one’s mind for long.
Fortunately the term forgettable cannot be applied to the documentaries that screened at TBFF. While there was a wealth of music infused films, two that I want to quickly touch on Taye Balogun’s Music is Our Weapon and N.C. Heikin’ Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story. Both films speak to the power of music to raise people out poverty, but offer opposite ends of the spectrums with regards to what artists do with the gifts they are given. Sarabi, the youthful Kenyan band in Balogun’s film, use their music as a platform to address social issues that are impacting those whose voices are not being heard. Music is Our Weapon effectively shows that, if you provide young kids with the proper artistic tools, you can change the mindset of a generation for the better.
By contrast Sound of Redemption: The Frank Morgan Story is a cautionary tale of how easy the lure of drugs and crime can derail a promising career. Heikin’s film was a pleasant surprise as it provided an insightful look at the life of saxophone legend, and frequent San Quentin inmate, Frank Morgan. The film documented how an impoverished childhood and the desire to be just like his idol and mentor Charlie “Bird” Parker culminated into a problematic heroin addiction. Touching on the nature of addiction, Morgan’s descent into crime, and the racism that musicians of colour often have to deal with, Sound of Redemption was far more engaging than its traditional structure would have led to believe upon first glance.
The festival highlights various aspects of the black experience, while simultaneously touching on universal themes. As the Toronto Black Film Festival continues to grow and flourish with each passing year, it will remain an important outlet for diverse storytelling.