TORONTO – If you’re always dreamed of going to Cannes for one of the world’s most famous film festivals, you can save yourself some air miles and some flying time by going to Canada instead. The annual Toronto Film Festival, around since 1976, is one of the largest film festivals in the world. This year, over 200 feature-length films, short films and documentaries from around the globe were screened, including many that you’ll see getting accolades during Oscar, Golden Globe and SAG Awards season in 2020.  Here’s what we saw, heard and liked (or didn’t) during our time at the festival which continues through the 15th.

CELEB-SPOTTING:

The Toronto Film Festival is the place to be if you want to spot, take pics or possibly encounter a celebrity. Every major celebrity with a film out is there and they will show up on the red carpets for the big premieres of the major movies. What great about it is that Toronto prepares by blocking off a portion of King Street, a major thoroughfare where the TIFF Lightbox building his which is the festival’s main hub. (The Lightbox holds film-related events all year-long. )This allows for fans to get pretty up close and personal with the stars as the premieres are set up for maximum access and most celebs work not just the red carpet, but the crowd, taking selfies with fans and interacting with them. I literally almost stumbled upon Kristen Stewart at the red carpet premiere for Seberg.

 

FAVORITE MOVIE WITH A BLACK PERSON IN IT THAT’S NOT A BLACK MOVIE  

Susan Kelechi Watson from NBC’s mega-hit series This Is Us plays a woman married to Esquire magazine journalist Lloyd Vogel, (a pseudonym for real-life Esquire writer Tom Junod) whose life is changed by his celebrity profile of Fred Rogers, played by Tom Hanks, the host of the 70’s children’s TV show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. Watson is excellent and the movie should be one of the early Oscar frontrunners coming out of TIFF. If you are old enough to remember Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood, it will be a tearjerker for you, but director Marielle Heller said at one of the film’s screenings that people who had never heard of Mr. Rogers were moved by the movie. There is one extraordinary scene in the film that should resonate with audiences as it did in Toronto. Release Date: November 22

MOST SURPRISING MOVIE

You may have thought that Hustlers was just a superficial Jennifer Lopez vehicle about a bunch of strippers pulling off a few shady robberies but the movie is a lot more layered than that. Through the relationship of veteran stripper Ramona and her protegé, Destiny (Constance Wu) it explores the dynamics of toxic female friendship while also making a few salient points about sexuality, money and the limited choices of women with few resources. Lizzo and Cardi B make cameo appearances – (and Cardi’s is hilarious) but Keke Palmer gets a meatier role and does well with it. That growing Oscar buzz for Lopez is well-deserved. It’s one of the strongest performances of her career. Release date: September 13th

DYNAMITE DOLEMITE 

You can’t really call it a comeback, because Eddie Murphy never left, but its obvious he’s been ramping up his visibility with high-profile projects like Dolemite Is My Name and the upcoming Coming to America sequel. After missteps like his WTF role in 2016’s Mr. Church, I’m quite happy to say that Murphy has returned to form as Dolemite, based on true story of self-made comedian/actor/filmmaker Rudy Ray Moore. The movie is an enjoyable romp through the behind-the-scenes ride of Moore’s inability to be limited by his finances or circumstances. As good as Murphy is, Wesley Snipes steals the movie in his role as D’Urville Martin, a real-life actor who Moore befriended and asked to direct his first film. Do yourself a favor – see this one in its limited theater run or with some friends if you wait for it on Netflix. Release date: October 4, limited, then available on Netflix.

BREAKOUT STARS

If you blink a few times, you might wonder how a  young Micheal Jackson ended up in the Harriet film. The actor who portrays a bounty turned freedom fighter to assist Harriet Tubman is Henry Hunter Hall, the son of director Kasi Lemmons and her husband Vondie Curtis Hall. Someone please get on that MJ biopic before this young man ages out of it. Harriet will prove he already has the onscreen charisma.

As media, we better learn how to pronounce and spell actress Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s name because she’s going to be a star. She plays Lady Reed in Dolemite is My Name and should break out of it similarly to how Tiffany Haddish blew up after Girl’s Trip. Journeyman actor Rob Morgan, who played Mary J. Blige’s husband in Mudbound, should, in a perfect world, get an Oscar nom for his role as Death Row inmate Herbert Richardson as his performance is the movie’s most heartbreaking.

MOVIE WITH A GREAT PREMISE THAT FELL SHORT

Seberg starring Kristen Stewart, Anthony Mackie, Zazie Beetz and relative British newcomer Jack O’Connell, has an interesting premise – the harassment of then-Hollywood star Jean Seberg by the FBI’s notorious COINTELPRO program. Seberg, played by Stewart, is a Hollywood star,  but she’s also a sympathizer of Black power groups and causes, something that puts her in the crosshairs of the FBI.

It doesn’t help that despite being married herself, she’s hooking up with activist Hakim Jamal, played by Mackie, and Panther Minister of Defense Raymond “Masai” Hewitt. Here’s the problem – in 2019, centering the story around the white actress victimized by the FBI, instead of focusing on the many Black lives destroyed by COINTELPRO, seems anachronistic.

The film also plays fast and loose with the more interesting real-life story behind it. Seberg was sleeping with Jamal and Hewitt, who is not even mentioned in the movie, and it was his child that the FBI alleged she was carrying. (It was not.) Having O’Connell play a sympathetic FBI agent seems forced and that takes away from the film, though not from his performance. Mackie is, well, he’s pretty much wasted as is Beetz, who plays his wife. This had potential, but doesn’t give much of a voice to its Black characters, the reason Seberg was harassed in the first place. Release: It’s out now.

HARRIET

The most amazing thing about Harriet, aside from Cynthia Erizo’s compelling performance, is that it took this long to get a biopic done. At an exclusive Harriet luncheon at the Toronto Film Festival, director Kasi Lemmons told media that Harriet producer Debra Martin Chase (who worked with Whitney Houston) has had the project in development since the 90’s. Actors Leslie Odom, Jr.,Janelle Monae and Vondie Curtis Hall all play real-life historical characters in the movie, which tracks Harriet’s life from her escape from slavery in Dorchester County, Maryland to Philadelphia and then on to Canada.

Although the movie does makes Harriet seem almost saintly, it appears, from all accounts, that she was. Emmy, Grammy and Tony winner Erivo makes a solid case for an “O” for Oscar to join those awards as she imbues young Harriet with mission and purpose and brings her to life in a way we’ve never seen before. Reviews of the film have suggested that it leans too heavily on Tubman’s spiritual influence, but African-American audiences who are familiar with the concept of an “anointing” on people, will better relate to that concept. What you realize in seeing this movie is that Harriet is not just a Black American story, it’s a uniquely American story. Release:  November 1

L-R: Harriet cast members Zackary Momoh, Jennifer Nettles, Omar Dorsey, Cynthia Erivo, Leslie Odom, Jr., Kasi Lemmons and Vondie Curtis-Hall at Toronto International Film Festival.

JUST MERCY

Just Mercy is an impactful film, if not much different from many Hollywood films of its kind – a heroic, principled figure makes the difference in someone else’s life and is duly celebrated with a movie about how it went down. The difference in Just Mercy is that that man is usually white, and this time, he’s Black. Michael B. Jordan plays the truly heroic real-life lawyer Bryan Stevenson, whose Equal Justice Initiative helped 140 wrongfully accused people gain their freedom. This is the movie version of his 2014 book which details the story of an Alabama man Walter McMillan, who was put on Death Row for murdering a white woman despite attending a fish fry miles away at the time of the murder.

Foxx plays McMillan in what rightfully should generate some Oscar buzz, and Rob Morgan’s character, as detailed above, is a compelling part of the film. In a time where issues of criminal justice and Black people proliferate, Just Mercy should prove to be an affirmation for some parts of the population and an education for others. Release Date: December 25

BUZZIEST MOVIE:

Waves, starring Sterling K. Brown and Renee Elise Goldsberry and Moonlight’s Kelvin Harrison, Jr. was one of the most talked about movies of the Toronto Film Festival among Black media outlets. It tells the story of a privileged Black family and how they handle their son’s crisis after he suffers a wrestling injury. While there were some mixed reviews, it resonated with others, particularly the depiction of Brown as a father driving his son way too far. It’s an A24 film, which means it will likely land in arthouse theaters, so look out for it. (Scheduling did not allow us to see it at TIFF). Other movies folks were buzzing about France’s Portrait of A Lady On Fire, Uncut Gems with Adam Sandler, Kevin Garnett (yes, the former NBA player and Abel “The Weeknd” Tesfaye,  and Knives Out with Daniel Craig, Jamie Lee Curtis and LaKeith Stanfield. Release Date:  November 1

WILL SMITH 

He wasn’t there but he did appear in Bryce Dallas Howard’s heartwarming documentary “Dads” where the daughter of Ron Howard posed the joys and trials of fatherhood to a few celebrity and non-celebrity fathers. Will gives one of the best closing lines of any movie we saw at the festival, along with Jennifer Lopez in Hustlers. We won’t ruin it for you, but we agree with both of their statements. The doc was picked up by Apple TV so that’s where you’ll be able to see it. Release Date: TBD

CALLING BLACK DIRECTORS

Out of the major movies with predominantly Black casts including Just Mercy and Dolemite is My Name, only one – Harriet – had a Black director. Hopefully that was just this year and not an ominous sign of the future as more white directors take on traditionally “Black” subjects and stories.

Female directors, though, had a good moment this year, as along with Harriet, both Hustlers (Lorene Scafaria) and A Beautiful Day in the Neighborhood (Marielle Heller) were directed by women.

 

PHOTOS: Courtesy of TIFF, Tonya Pendleton

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