Arts·Black Light

Still working on your TIFF schedule? Check out these must-see films by Black directors

Amanda Parris and TIFF's Cameron Bailey share their picks.

Amanda Parris and TIFF's Cameron Bailey share their picks

Scene from One Night in Miami, Regina King's directorial debut. Following a premiere in Venice, it makes its way to the 2020 Toronto International Film Festival. (Submitted by TIFF)

It's the most wonderful time of the year: the Toronto International Film Festival! But because it's 2020, it's a festival unlike any we've had before. 

Virtual panels, drive-in screenings and a scaled-down program reflect the reality of film festivals in the new COVID-19 era. As much as I miss the pulsating energy of King St., TIFF is pioneering a new format that is not only safe but accessible in a way that wasn't possible before. You no longer need to physically be in Toronto to experience much of what the festival has to offer. 

In celebration of my favourite time of year, this edition of Black Light is a dedicated rundown of all the Black films featured at this year's festival. For the purpose of this list, a Black film is defined as a movie made by a Black director.

Cameron Bailey is the artistic director of the Toronto International Film Festival. (Matt Barnes )

Although this year's program may be smaller, there is still a ton of exciting premieres by legendary auteurs, experimental innovators and emerging voices from all around the world, including quite a few Black Canadian creatives. 

This list was compiled with the help of the TIFF team and their artistic director and co-head, Cameron Bailey. He contributed some personal thoughts on each of the feature films.

Feature films

40 Years a Prisoner. (TIFF)

40 Years a Prisoner (Director: Tommy Oliver)

I remember the first time I learned about the revolutionary MOVE Organization and the ways they were targeted and attacked by the Philadelphia police and government. In 1985, the city's police department dropped a bomb on a residential street where members of the organization lived. The scene looked straight out of a Hollywood war movie. That incident forever shifted my understanding of the way the state can and will respond to Black activism. Any film about MOVE is a must-see in my book. 

In 40 Years a Prisoner, director Tommy Oliver focuses his lens on the struggle of the next generation who have fought for years to exonerate their parents. 

TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey calls this film "an absolute must-see." 

"[It] tells the epic political story through the inspiring personal story, which can't have been easy."

Akilla's Escape. (TIFF)

Akilla's Escape (Director: Charles Officer)

When screenwriter Wendy Motion Brathwaite and director Charles Officer collaborate, magic is inevitable. I know this because I got to witness that magic firsthand: Officer directed Brathwaite's play Aneemah's Spot back in 2014. (Full disclosure: I starred as the titular Aneemah.) Now, they've paired up once again, but this time for a feature film that explores the cycle of violence over the course of one night. In the movie, a drug trader named Akilla (Saul Williams) tries to intervene before the next generation makes the same bad decisions he once did. 

Officer has many years ahead of him, but he's already crafting an incredible catalogue of films. As Bailey notes: "Over several films, Charles Officer has carved out a historic place in Canadian cinema. He's telling the story of Black trauma and its overcoming like no one else has."

David Byrne's American Utopia. (TIFF)

David Byrne's American Utopia (Director: Spike Lee)

Spike Lee's mostly known as an auteur, but his love for the arts across mediums is part of why his vision is so singular. 

In this film we see his deep passion for music, theatre and cinema coalesce as he documents David Byrne's 2019 Broadway show American Utopia. And as the title indicates, it is also an invitation to explore various political issues, another of the legendary director's favourite subjects. The show covers everything from consumerism to police brutality.

Bailey notes the magic inherent in the collaboration: "I've loved Spike's filmmaking and David's music for decades but never thought I'd see them working together. This collab is perfect, and perfect for this moment when art can help us stay engaged and fight for justice."

Bruised. (TIFF)

Bruised (Director: Halle Berry)

If you've recently taken a gander at Halle Berry's Instagram, you may have realized she's literally morphed into a real-life superhero over the last few years. From her butt-kicking martial arts skills to her determination to explore her own power as a storyteller, Berry has been on an exciting journey that has led her to this moment.

In this film — her directorial debut — she plays a former MMA fighter struggling in both her personal and professional life. It's a movie about transformation in the midst of difficult growth, a theme that feels perfect for the iconic star.

Says Bailey: "[Berry] has survived all kinds of shade, hate and dismissal, before and after the Oscar. Bruised feels like her redemption story. This woman is a force to be reckoned with, and she directs the hell out of this movie."

Downstream to Kinshasha (Director: Dieudo Hamadi)

There are so many films made about the Congo by non-Congolese filmmakers and almost as many inspired by the Congo that choose to reframe the country as an abstract mythical location. So when a film comes along that is actually made by a Congolese filmmaker, it feels like a must-see. 

In this film, critically acclaimed documentary filmmaker Dieudo Hamadi honours the survivors of his native country's Six-Day War in 2000.

Says Bailey: "Hamadi puts you right in the midst of these impressive, talented Congolese as they make their way downriver to seek justice. Artful, righteous and essential viewing."

Good Joe Bell. (TIFF)

Good Joe Bell (Director: Reinaldo Marcus Green)

Director Reinaldo Marcus Green put himself on the industry's radar with Monsters and Men, a blistering film following the journey of three different characters who are dealing with police brutality. In his follow-up feature, Green explores another timely subject.

Teaming up with the writers behind Brokeback Mountain, Green tells the true story of a father from Oregon who walks across the U.S. to raise awareness about the harm and trauma caused by bullying. 

"Green got the Drake co-sign when he brought Monsters and Men to the festival a couple of years back," says Bailey. "Good Joe Bell shows him rising still."

The Inheritance (Director: Ephraim Asili)

This is the second film in the festival that covers the history of the MOVE Organization, but unlike 40 Years a Prisoner, this is a more experimental exploration. 

The debut feature film from director Ephraim Asili weaves together various histories, including those of the MOVE Organization, the Black Arts Movement and Asili's own experiences. The filmmaker spent time in a Black Marxist collective to explore Black political discourse and philosophies. 

Bailey writes: "This is the artier of the two MOVE films in this year's festival, playing like '60s Godard and Bill Greaves came back to show what it means to be young, radical and Black."

MLK/FBI. (TIFF)

MLK/FBI (Director: Sam Pollard)

It's easy to forget that before Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination the FBI deemed him "the most dangerous Negro in the future of this nation." He was also one of the most heavily surveilled. 

In this new film, director Sam Pollard takes a deep dive into newly declassified files and illustrates the lengths that the U.S. government took to spy on and harass a man now considered one of the country's greatest heroes. 

Bailey calls the film "required viewing now, and every Martin Luther King Jr. Day." 

"I'm in awe of how Pollard chose from hundreds of hours of archive footage to tell this story. But then, check his work as an editor and it all makes sense. Brilliant."

Night of the Kings. (TIFF)

Night of the Kings (Director: Philippe Lacôte)

In a recent interview with CNN, Ivory Coast filmmaker Philippe Lacôte speaks about the importance of making films that are not only set in Africa but that are told through Africans' vision and perception of the world. 

Said Lacôte: "The culture of Ivory Coast is not too logical, like a European culture. The border is very fine between real things and magical things, invisible worlds and physical worlds, dead people and alive people. All of these borders are continuously moving. It was important for me to move between modern world, ancient world, mythic world, mystic world — it's our way to see life." 

That vision is on display in his new film Night of the Kings, the story of a young man incarcerated in a prison in Abdijan, Ivory Coast. In order to survive, he is forced to recount a story. Bailey describes the result as "a gorgeous, mythic tale that speaks to both right now and the ages."

One Night in Miami (Director: Regina King)

Regina King is on a roll, from an Oscar win last year for her role in If Beale Street Could Talk to her critically acclaimed turn in this year's Watchmen. Now, she's dazzling audiences with her work behind the camera. 

This film, her directorial debut, made history at the Venice Film Festival earlier this week for being the first movie by an African American woman to be selected by the festival.

Based on a play by Kemp Powers, One Night in Miami imagines what happened during a 1964 meeting between four powerhouses: Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke and Jim Brown. 

According to Bailey, this is a film for the books: "This is the kind of movie I hope lives on the video shelf of families for ages. Should eventually come in 4K digital, Blu-ray, DVD and VHS."

The Water Man. (TIFF)

The Water Man (Director: David Oyelowo)

David Oyelowo has been delivering iconic performances for years now, but with his directorial debut he displays his artistic vision behind the camera. 

It's a coming-of-age story about a young boy. He is struggling with his mother's terminal illness and has a tense relationship with his father (played by Oyelowo). Magic found deep in the woods becomes his answer for restoring the family that he is terrified to lose.  

This is a film for the entire family, and as Bailey observes: "Oyelowo made the movie he wanted to see as a child, and now we can all see a classic, rousing Spielbergian tale with a Black boy and family right at the centre."

The Way I See It (Director: Dawn Porter)

Reminiscing about the Obama years has become a cultural ritual for many on social media, but when we look back, we often see the world through rose-tinted glasses. 

In the latest from documentarian Dawn Porter (John Lewis: Good Trouble), she profiles Pete Souza, the White House photographer who captured the Obama presidency in all its facets. 

Coming on the heels of the upcoming election, Souza's perspective feels all the more urgent and prescient. 

Says Bailey: "Watching the Obama White House and its chronicler feels like a hazy memory now, but this is inspiring work from one of America's best documentarians."

Short films

Still from Black Bodies. (TIFF)

Black Bodies (Director: Kelly Fyffe-Marshall)

Following a personal experience of racial profiling at an Air BnB (a story that went viral), Canadian director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall made this film to explore the traumatic experience of being defined solely by the perceived threat of one's body.

RKLSS (TIFF)

RKLSS (Director: Tank Standing Buffalo) 

This animated short by Black and Indigenous filmmaker Tank Standing Buffalo is a horror-fantasy exploring the director's own experiences with prolonged segregation as a young offender, putting a spotlight on the Canadian prison system.

Sinking Ship. (TIFF)

Sinking Ship (Director: Sasha Leigh Henry)

Sometimes a film doesn't need much more than a good setting, two actors and a prescient premise. That's what you'll find in this short from Canadian director Sasha Leigh Henry. The story explores the power dynamics between a mature couple.

In Sudden Darkness. (TIFF)

In Sudden Darkness (Director: Tayler Montague)

Power outages can bring out the best and the worst in folks. In this short film, we see what happens to one family in the Bronx when the lights go out.

Still from Sër Bi. (TIFF)

Sër Bi (Director: Moly Kane)

In this 21-minute film by Senegalese director Moly Kane, a young woman on the verge of marriage must first confront and erase elements of her past. 

The Price of Cheap Rent (Directors: Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka)

Although set in the U.S., the hunt for affordable housing in a rapidly gentrifying city is a relatable issue for many Torontonians. This film takes a uniquely dark take on the subject.

Special shoutout

Still from Concrete Cowboy. (TIFF)

Concrete Cowboy is by a non-Black director (Ricky Staub) but was made by Black producers and a Black cast. It explores urban-cowboy subculture and features Idris Elba. Need I say more?

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.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

now