TIFF 2013: Long walk to Oscar

Movies on Mandela, slavery and Hendrix head to Toronto’s film festival. Will awards glory follow?

Keith Bernstein / TIFF

After its summer binge of blowing up the world in sci-fi blockbusters, it’s time for Hollywood to sober up, get real and put its faith in the higher power of movies that matter. Time for the red-carpet rehab of the Toronto International Film Festival, now well-established as the proving ground for movies destined for the Academy Awards. As a predictor of Oscar glory, TIFF has been remarkably consistent, launching crowd-pleasers that have gone on to win Best Picture such as The King’s Speech and Argo. And what routinely hits the Academy’s sweet spot are true stories of inspirational heroes—even if the hero is bogus and the truth is stretched until it snaps, as was the case with Ben Affleck’s Argo.

But as Affleck graduates from saving hostages in Iran to saving the world as the new Batman, this year’s festival is unveiling some heroic stories plucked from history that have a lot more heft than Argo: dramas of racial conflict powered by a new wave of ferociously talented black actors. It would be hard to find a more noble—and timely—hero than Nelson Mandela, whose iconic stature requires no hyperbole. In Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, he is portrayed by the formidable British actor Idris Elba (Luther, Pacific Rim) in one of the festival’s most hotly anticipated premieres. Another heavyweight entry, 12 Years a Slave, resurrects the extraordinary 1859 memoir of Solomon Northup, starring Elba’s compatriot Chiwetel Ejiofor as a free black man who is kidnapped then sold into bondage. Another Brit of African heritage, Gugu Mbatha-Raw, plays the biracial daughter of an English admiral and a Caribbean slave in Belle, a lush costume drama about an Austen-like heroine torn between aristocratic refinement and African roots. And in All Is By My Side, Outkast rapper André Benjamin is generating buzz for his portrayal of the pre-famous Jimi Hendrix as a black bluesman searching for his identity in the world of white rock.

This is a watershed year for actors and filmmakers of African heritage tackling issues of race. Already we’ve seen 42, the saga of Jackie Robinson breaking baseball’s colour line; The Butler, inspired by the career of an African-American servant to six U.S. presidents; and Fruitvale Station, about Oscar Grant III, a 22-year-old black man shot dead by police while handcuffed at an Oakland subway stop early on New Year’s Day in 2009.

Fifty years after Martin Luther King Jr.’s landmark “I have a dream” speech, the Dream Factory is finally catching up to the dreams, and nightmares, of black history. “People are talking about race as if it’s still a present fact that operates in our lives,” says TIFF artistic director Cameron Bailey. “This idea of a post-racial society that Obama’s election was meant to usher in—we’ve realized that’s not the case. And some of that awkwardness around the conversation is being blown away by these movies.”

This year will likely produce an unprecedented number of Oscar nominations for black actors and directors. It’s possible that two British sons of African immigrants, Mandela’s Elba and 12 Years a Slave’s Ejiofor, will go head to head as Best Actor nominees. And don’t count out The Butler’s Forest Whitaker, not to mention Oprah Winfrey, his scene-stealing co-star. “These stories are long overdue,” says African-American filmmaker John Ridley, who wrote 12 Years a Slave and also wrote and directed All Is By My Side. “Unfortunately, it’s taken a president of the United States twice being elected as a self-identifying black man to make people realize that we as a society are open to them.”

Ridley is a veteran screenwriter, novelist and essayist, whose credits include David O. Russell’s 1999 Persian Gulf war drama Three Kings—a movie he wrote for a black protagonist, picturing Samuel L. Jackson in the role. The studio vetoed the idea and cast George Clooney. But even now that Hollywood is waking up to the appeal of black characters, Ridley feels they still get short shrift. When movies like 42, The Butler and The Help, are hits, he says, “there’s this expression in Hollywood that they ‘overperformed.’ They didn’t overperform; that audience was there. And not only people of colour—white folks flocked to 42.”

Director Justin Chadwick’s Mandela biopic has obvious potential to galvanize a broad audience, with Elba bringing Mandela to life over a narrative arc ranging from his youth as a boxer to his release from prison. “You know almost within seconds that you’re in good hands,” says Bailey. “He gets the voice right. And it’s a very physical, muscular performance. You see him as someone who can dominate a situation, and not just with his words.” Adds Bailey: “It’s more of a love story than I was expecting. It’s very moving.”

By contrast, 12 Years a Slave bears the visceral, unsentimental signature of Steve McQueen, the British director of Hunger and Shame. And it deepens a discussion bookended by two movies last year—Steven Spielberg’s Lincoln, which dissected the politics of abolishing slavery without depicting the horror, and Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, which framed the horror within the pulp fiction of a giddy revenge fantasy.

Bailey calls McQueen’s movie “a punch to the gut.” Drawing a parallel to Schindler’s List, he alludes to a lynching scene that is “very hard to take—the kind of scene that inevitably African-Americans and others will watch differently.” Bailey, a Canadian of African-Caribbean descent, says the film “shows something that has been unrepresented, or unrepresentable, in American cinema until now.” With the right push, he adds, “it should start a national conversation in the U.S. about the slave era. It needs Michelle Obama to see it, be profoundly moved by it and start talking about it publicly. If that happens, it will be the film everybody has to see.”

12 Years a Slave tells the story of Solomon Northup, a free black man and a skilled carpenter and fiddler in upstate New York, who gets scammed by two men offering him a brief, lucrative job with their travelling circus. In Washington, he wakes up drugged and shackled, is sold into slavery, and shipped to Louisiana to work for plantation owners (played by Michael Fassbender and Benedict Cumberbatch). After 12 years, Northup finds a way out with the help of a Canadian carpenter—portrayed by Brad Pitt, who produced the movie with his company, Plan B.

Published shortly before the American Civil War, Northup’s elegantly written memoir was a bestseller embraced by abolitionists. But the book has lapsed into obscurity. Ridley says McQueen’s wife discovered it and brought it to their attention. “It was shocking that here was this amazing story that was not in the American canon,” says the screenwriter. “It was very odd for me, as someone who believes he knows his history as a black American.” Northup’s heroic character is palpable on the page in elegant, elevated prose that Ridley says he found inspiring but tough to adapt: “This individual’s ability to not give over to hate, to not lose his faith, to maintain his human dignity, not just his poise—those things really struck me.”

It’s curious that a British director and actor have brought the story to light. But then it was another outsider, Canada’s Norman Jewison, who made the landmark civil rights movie In the Heat of the Night in 1967. The Butler has a pivotal scene in which the couple played by Whitaker and Winfrey rave about In the Heat of the Night and its star, Sidney Poitier—only to be chastised by their son, a Black Panther who wears his beret at the dinner table.

“Sidney Poitier is a white man’s fantasy of what he wants us to be,” says the son.

“What are you talking about?” says his father. “He won the Academy Award. He’s breaking down barriers for all of us.”

“By acting white. Sidney Poitier is nothing but a rich Uncle Tom.”

“Get the hell out of my house!”

“I’m sorry Mr. Butler, I didn’t want to make fun of your hero,” says the son, prompting a resounding slap in the face from Oprah.

It’s a moment that spells out the inevitable subtext of movies that grapple with the black experience—the delicate issue of how it has been represented, and honoured, by Hollywood. In 85 years, only five African-Americans have won Oscars for lead roles—Poitier as a saintly laborer in Lilies of the Field, Denzel Washington as a corrupt cop in Training Day, Halle Berry as a desperate widow in Monster’s Ball, Jamie Foxx as Ray Charles in Ray, and Whitaker as the tyrant Idi Amin in The Last King of Scotland. Aside from Ray, none are stories of iconic heroes. Biopics about Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali and Rubin “Hurricane” Carter all lost out. This year may be different. For a long time, a handful of bankable stars and directors, notably Spike Lee and Denzel Washington, did all the heavy lifting. But suddenly the diaspora of black talent and the breadth of their stories appears to be as boundless as cinema itself.

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