What the Oscars can learn from TIFF

Illustration by Jake Benaim.

It took a hashtag to point out to the Academy what was obvious for many—actors, directors and films featuring people of colour are consistently undervalued.  The hashtag #OscarsSoWhite represented the fact that despite there being countless of amazing performances by various actors of colour, none of them were nominated by the Academy’s mostly (but not surprisingly) white slate of judges.

In response to the movement, the Academy’s director Cheryl Boone Isaacs published a statement promising that by 2020 the Academy will double the number of “women and diverse members.”

Many had their eyes on how TIFF would respond to #OscarsSoWhite. After all, the festival is often an early signifier for Oscar contenders.

So, how did TIFF do?

The Toronto Star analyzed the 20 films that were given gala presentations and found that 15 per cent featured a director or person of colour. But what was really remarkable about TIFF this year was the quality of the stories told about people of colour in these films. These actors, directors and their works weren’t just placed in a pigeonhole of only dealing with race. Barry Jenkin’s Moonlight follows an African-American man growing up in Miami while exploring his sexuality. The opening film, The Magnificent Seven, a western, has Denzel Washington in one of the main roles. Deepwater Horizon features Gina Rodriguez as a young oil rig worker dealing with a catastrophic explosion. And yet there were also films that eloquently dealt with race, like Nate Parker’s Birth of a Nation which tells the story of slave rebellion and Loving which follows an interracial couple’s fight for the right to be married.

TIFF also featured the films of seven women directors in their gala screenings this year, a step up from previous years. Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe was one of them. The film puts women of colour at the forefront, following Fiona, a young Ugandan girl, as she becomes a chess champion. It’s a Disney movie, and it tells the story of a young girl finding empowerment through herself—not through some “white saviour” character, but through herself.

People often judge diversity on face value—for example, if the film has at least one person that isn’t white, it must be diverse. Festivals are praised for higher quotas. And while numbers do matter, it means nothing if the stories being told in these films aren’t as diverse as the people they represent.  We need more films where people of colour are empowered, unique, flawed. Where they’re human and not stereotypical caricatures.

TIFF did a pretty decent job of that this year, but is there room for improvement? Definitely.

And while numbers do matter, it means nothing if the stories being told in these films aren’t as diverse as the people they represent.

In an interview with the Toronto Star regarding lack of diversity, Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s artistic director says, “It’s really just a matter of audiences wanting to see more of ourselves reflected up on screen.” Fifteen per cent and seven women doesn’t proportionately represent audiences of Toronto. It’s a start, but there are still ways to go.