Arts

4 must-watch Canadian movies coming to TIFF's Black Star

The event celebrates Black film history and it arrives in Toronto this week. Amanda Parris and Ella Cooper take a look at some of the highlights.

The event celebrates Black film history and it arrives in Toronto this week

Stella Meghie's Jean of the Joneses screens Tuesday, Nov. 7 as part of Black Star. (Courtesy of TIFF)

The British Film Institute (BFI) launched Black Star last year, a season of screenings and events across the U.K. The program is dedicated to celebrating the work of Black actors, and this weekend, Black Star comes to Canada for the first time.

Hosted by the TIFF Bell Lightbox in Toronto, the retrospective, which celebrates 100 years of Black excellence in film, includes 22 screenings. The lineup is impressive, featuring classic movies such as the 1972 Billie Holiday biopic Lady Sings the Blues and the 1988 box office hit Coming to America — and the programming puts a focus on performers such as Denzel Washington, Lena Horne and Sidney Poitier, examining what Black stardom has meant throughout movie history.

But it begs the question: where are Canada's Black stars?

We have talent in abundance, and Black Canadians have been acting in films for decades, but becoming a household name requires the kind of industry that arguably doesn't exist here. The Canadians who've become Hollywood stars (think Jim Carrey, Ryan Gosling, Rachel McAdams) went south of the border to launch their careers. Given the limited opportunities for Black actors (see #OscarsSoWhite), the challenges are disproportionately heightened.

That left the Black Star programmers with a challenge.

The series is curated by Ashley Clark, who also programmed its BFI edition. "My main aim in putting the program together was to explore how the idea of black stardom has been historically constructed and challenged both within and outside the Hollywood system, including how negative stereotypes have been fought back against by courageous performers," he told me over email.

Clark admitted that he "wasn't overly familiar with Black Canadian cinema before this," so Toronto filmmaker Ella Cooper helped to program the Canadian sidebar of the series.

Her approach? The true stars of Black Canadian cinema are the filmmakers.

"For a Black filmmaker to realize their dream in an industry that is still quite biased is no small feat," Cooper told me. "The vision, drive and talent inherent in Black Canadian cinema is one to be celebrated, so all the films and music videos selected for the four nights I programmed are in recognition of the filmmakers themselves."

As much as I welcome any opportunity to celebrate Black Canadian filmmakers, I can't help but hope that a future iteration of this program will be inspired by Black Canadian stars in front of the camera that have become household names. I want the world to recognize and celebrate the talent of actors such as Stephan James, Mouna Traoré, Lyriq Bent and Bahia Watson.

Until then, here are four Canadian features to watch for on the Black Star program. Cooper shared her thoughts on each.

Love, Sex and Eating the Bones

Love, Sex and Eating the Bones screens at the TIFF Bell Lightbox Friday, Nov. 3. (Courtesy of TIFF)

This prize-winning debut feature film from director Sudz Sutherland explores the ups and downs of a budding romance that must directly address the gap between real intimacy and sexual fantasy in order to flourish.

Ella Cooper: "In addition to winning best Canadian feature at TIFF, this film is a joy to watch. It's a playful, poignant comedy that takes a beautiful twist on Black love."

Black Mother Black Daughter

On Saturday, Nov. 4, "Black Mother Black Daughter" screens alongside two other short films, "Whitewash" and "Black Soul." (Courtesy of TIFF)

Sylvia Hamilton and Claire Prieto explore the multi-layered experiences of African-Canadian women in Nova Scotia.

Cooper: "This film is created by some of the Black female pioneers of Canadian cinema. [It's] an important documentary and reflection on the lives and experience of African-Canadian women in Nova Scotia and another take on Canadian history."

Home Feeling: Struggle for a Community

Still from Home Feeling. The documentary plays Sunday, Nov. 5 as part of Black Star. (Courtesy of TIFF)

This NFB documentary by the late Jennifer Hodge and Roger McTair is a powerful inside look at the lives of Jane and Finch residents in the '80s. It explores day-to-day issues such as police profiling and low-income housing.

Cooper: "Jennifer Hodge and Roger McTair are also some of Canada's 'pioneers' in Black Canadian cinema. This film is timely and fascinating in its illustration of the vibrant and infamous neighbourhood of Jane-Finch. It is beautifully shot with a look into a community that continues to be misunderstood by authorities and the media today. It's also a really unique depiction of Toronto at that time with a level of access into the police system that is very illuminating."

Jean of the Joneses

Stella Meghie's 2016 comedy follows Jean, a 20-something writer living in Brooklyn. After an unexpected breakup and a surprising death, the women in her family are forced to come together and address their layered and chaotic history.

Cooper: "Stella Meghie is a director and writer to watch. Already starting to carve out a space for herself in Hollywood, Stella — originally from Toronto — won two Canadian Screen Awards for this film."

The full list of Canadian films (including work directed by Canadians) in the Black Star program:

Features:

Love, Sex and Eating the Bones

In the Heat of the Night

Black Mother Black Daughter

Home Feeling

Jean of the Joneses

Rude

Soul Survivor

Shorts:

"Whitewash"

"Black Soul"

"Walk Good"

"Reflections of Wata"

"Short Hymn, Silent War"

"The Railpath Hero"

Music Videos:

"Baby It's You"

"Northern Touch"

"Started from the Bottom"

"The Trilogy"

Black Star. Nov. 3 to Dec. 22 at the TIFF Bell Lightbox, Toronto. www.tiff.net/blackstar

About the Author

Amanda Parris writes a weekly column for CBC Arts and is the host of Exhibitionists on CBC Television and Marvin's Room on CBC Radio. In her spare time, she writes plays and watches too many movies. In her past lives she wrote arts based curriculum, attended numerous acting auditions, and dreamed of being interviewed by Oprah.

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