Toronto International Film Festival 2020: When Icons Look Into The Mirror

Three films, three contexts – but with an underlying theme of the accountability of public figures, be they stars, activists or presidents. 

Actor-filmmaker Regina King’s celebrated debut feature, One Night in Miami, is a stirring conversation on repression. At first glance, it might come across as a straight-talking, plain and ingenuous narrative. A bit like witnessing a play on screen – it is based  on Kemp Powers’ award-winning play of the same name – which offers a fictionalised account of one night in 1964 when four Black icons – boxer Cassius Clay Jr. (who changed his name to Muhammad Ali later that year), Nation of Islam leader and human rights activist Malcolm X, singer-songwriter-composer Sam Cooke, and football player Jim Brown – had gathered to celebrate Clay’s historic victory over the reigning boxing heavyweight champion, Sonny Liston.

But such is the power and persuasiveness of the words expressing the feelings, thoughts, arguments and counter-arguments about what it means to be Black in America that the four friends share within the confines of the motel room, that it lends the film a rare force and dynamism.

One Night in Miami is a film that spins on this vital conversation, which comprises almost two-thirds of its 110-minute duration. In a virtual press conference for the film at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), where it played in the Gala Presentations section, King said that she hadn’t seen conversations like these happen before on screen, the kind that provide a glimpse of the “Black Man’s experience”.

Each character is etched distinctly when it comes to character traits. Clay/Ali (Eli Goree) is playful and preening in the wake of his massive win; Brown (Aldis Hodge) is quiet and intense; Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) solemn and righteous in his anger; and Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr) can’t help but bask in the affluence that has accompanied his hard-earned success. If Clay is transitioning from his “slave name” to Ali, Brown is getting wooed by Hollywood.

Each character has had his own experiences of persecution and found ways of dealing with them. For each icon, the other three are like mirrors which force him to confront certain unanswered questions.

Has Cooke really opened the doors for other Black men or is he “a one-off toy in the music box” for his largely White fan-base, wonders Malcolm. “Why is he wasting his creative mind in pandering to them,” has he been able to pen anything which reaches out even remotely as strongly to the Blacks as these lines written by a White Minnesota boy [Bob Dylan] – “How many roads must a man walk down, before you can call him a man?” Are the bourgeoisie Blacks happy with the crumbs of success offered to them? Or are they detrimental to the cause of Blacks at large?

Even as Malcolm X asks these uncomfortable questions, he is questioned in turn. Is he, in his evangelical zeal, too strident by half? Wasn’t it a fact that all was not well in his organisation as well?

Underlying it all is one larger distressing truth – the entrenched nature  of the many shades of injustice, necessitating a persistent struggle against them. Clay is constantly reminded by his manager that his friendship with Malcolm X is not regarded well by the white moneybags backing him.

There were three scenes left to shoot when the pandemic-induced lockdown brought things to a sudden halt for One Night in Miami, shared King. The release would have been pushed further ahead were it not for the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, which made King and her team realise the urgency of telling the story and taking the film to the people as it was an organic part of the Black Lives Matter movement. “People exploded. We were now in this powder-keg moment,” said King. Odom Jr and Goree agreed and they finished shooting the three scenes involving the two with a 60-person crew.

A still from One Night in Miami.

“Things that are being discussed in the film are just as relevant now as they were 60 years ago,” said King. One Night in Miami is the externalisation of a continuing inner dialogue. It’s not just these four individuals but an entire discriminated community having a conversation with itself; and with the world at large. By default, the film breaks the fourth wall and compels the audience to introspect – are they silent bystanders in the face of discrimination, active perpetrators, or part of those affected. There is no running away from accountability even as a viewer.

What hits home the most, is the casual everydayness, or normalisation, of racism. In the press conference, writer Powers referred to it as the banality of hatred and racism. “The one delivering it may not even notice, but it chips away souls for generations. It is as if it’s in our DNA,” he said. It’s evident in a particularly hard-hitting moment early in the film – which brings to mind the caste-based discriminations in India – when Brown visits the home of  a white patron only to find himself caught in an odd spot between appreciation and humiliation–- one casual remark from the kind patron brings his world crashing down.

Also read: Toronto International Film Festival 2020: Where Art Meets Politics

What is doubly infuriating for Brown is that his status does not keep him safe from such mortification.  Money, fame, acclaim and success then may not provide a blanket insurance against discrimination; they  come with conditions attached. Do Black icons truly have the power that makes it safe for them to be themselves? Look like themselves, think like themselves?

The underlining thought of the film is that even those who have risen above  discrimination to  touch the heights of success, have to confront hatred and racism, face it and engage with it. It’s a battle they have to be  prepared for at all times. It is something they owe not just to themselves but to their community and the disenfranchised at large. Like  the seminal song composed and sung by Sam Cooke,  “It’s been a long time coming, but I know a change is gonna come” – one simple song in which African-Americans and their civil rights protests over the decades found a powerful voice for all times to come.

Dilemmas of celebrityhood: The Boy from Medellin

The vulnerability and responsibility of a celebrity finds a musical expression in Matthew Heineman’s The Boy from Medellin, a documentary on Colombian reggaeton singer J. Balvin’s homecoming concert in November 2019 in the midst of unfolding political turmoil in the country. It showed at TIFF in the Special Events section.

A still from The Boy from Medellin.

The proverbial ivory tower that Balvin, like other showbiz stars, lives in, doesn’t quite offer him a refuge – neither from his own inner demons, anxieties and depression, nor from the trauma of being viciously trolled online.

Uncertainty looms large over a forthcoming concert that means the world to Balvin. Meanwhile, his young fans have taken to the streets against the right-wing government of president Ivan Duque. What starts as a labour union strike soon assumes a wider dimension, with protests from other sections of society. As the situation becomes more fraught, with one young protestor named Dilan Cruz being shot in the head by the police, Balvin needs to make up his mind – should he  take a considered position on a snowballing issue, or duck?

Balvin considers himself apolitical. As he sees it, his job is to entertain, spread love, tolerance and hope through his songs. But on Instagram he faces the heat for his neutrality, even as he becomes increasingly conflicted on the issue, what with his conscience pricking him. Whether he speaks or chooses to remain silent, there is no way out for him from censure? Or is there?

The documentary works well as an intimate peep into the mind of one of YouTube’s most- streamed artistes – his struggle as a migrant in Miami, the ambitions weighing him down, his jet-setting ways, his OCD  and the entourage of therapists following him everywhere  to calm his restless mind. And that genuine hurt and anguish on his face when someone comments on Instagram about his lack of response to the protests in his country – “the stars of detachment who watch fire from Miami but stay out of flame.”

The reggaeton star’s political makeover, though welcome, feels abrupt and somewhat incredulous. What triggered Balvin’s radical shift from an apolitical performer to a star with a political conscience in the five days preceding the concert? The viewer wonders whether the issue has been as deeply transformative for him as the film would have us believe. Is it an opportunistic change of heart or has his conscience truly been touched?

Whatever the answer, the film feels timely and relevant, especially in light of the Indian context where actors, filmmakers, writers and artistes have grown a political spine to speak their minds on the anti-Citizenship Amendment Act/National Register of Citizens protests by a wide section of Indians last year.

What gets iterated, rightly, and strongly, is that artistes cannot stay in isolation, that they bear a responsibility to the world and the people who have bestowed stardom on them. True artistes are the voice of the people, they risk themselves to speak on behalf of others, they help move things forward. So J. Balvin, the public persona and alter ego, is almost a platform on which the star’s real self, Jose Alvaro Osorio Balvin, must  take a stand and speak out loud  that people want a change, they must be heard, and that the government needs to listen.

Obama versus Trump: The Way I See It

It is a similar idea of responsibility that gets explored in the context of political leadership in Dawn Porter’s documentary, The Way I See It, albeit in a nostalgic, tangled and scattered manner, eschewing a hard-nosed, pointed approach.

The documentary offers a peep into the years of Barack Obama’s  presidency as seen from the point of view of Pete Souza, the former White House chief official photographer. It is not just about Obama the president of the United States, and the emotions and stress that he went through while taking crucial decisions for his nation; it is equally about Obama the husband and father who along with the rest of the country, saw his two little girls grow up in the limelight; and the man who loves playing basketball and is a lover of love stories. Souza’s pictures, and the film, are a visual documentation of history – personal as well as national – as it was being made in the course of a decade (2008-2017).

The film takes us through the significant moments in Obama’s presidency – from the killing of Osama Bin Laden to the legalisation of gay marriage, from the deployment of troops in Afghanistan in 2010 to the passing of the health insurance reform bill. It acknowledges the frailties of Obama, but doesn’t look hard at them. The Way I See It is an eulogy of a film for Obama and there is a reason for that – the aim is to hold the 44th president (Obama) up as an example against the 45th president (Donald Trump) and weigh in on how drastically things have changed at the Oval Office – for the worse.

Most of all, The Way I See It seeks to ask questions like how should the job of the US president be approached and what should the leader of the nation be like?

It’s no secret as to whose side Souza and the film are on, and why. He remained a silent fly on the wall during the years he spent at the White House. As the dispensation changed, he found himself unable to hold back. The White House chief official photographer took to Instagram posts to show the stark contrast between the Obama and Trump administrations and later compiled them in the book, Shade: A Tale of Two Presidents.

All this gets captured in the documentary. As does an interview in Hyderabad (2019), when Souza, in the course of participating in the PEP Photo Summit, expresses his disenchantment with Trump for doing damage to the very idea of a free press by pointing out Trump’s description of journalists as purveyors of “fake news” and “enemies of the people”.

Souza openly states that Trump has trivialised the office of the president and brought disrespect to it and he reads that in the pictures coming out of the White House now as opposed to the earlier presidency of Obama.  The candidness and sense of intimacy and access that Souza managed to reveal in his pictures is what he finds lacking in those of the Trump era. The images feel posed and controlled, as though they seek to hide more than they share.  And it is this visual analysis, through the gaze of the one behind the camera, that makes for the more compelling core of the film. After all, nowhere does the degradation in  public and political discourse get more starkly reflected than in the visual culture of the times.

At times the larger critique of Trump, while not inaccurate,  gets as sullen and facile as the petulance of the subject that it is targeting.  At the same time, there are several moments where the film resonates universally.  On the one hand we know this is an election year and the American leadership surely has a lot to answer for. Souza compares Trump’s handling of COVID-19 with Obama’s tackling of the Ebola outbreak. “Fires can be stopped by listening to science early on,” he says. But what Trump has brought about, according to him, is 40 times the deaths of 9/11.

However, the crisis of governance, amid the pandemic, that the film speaks of, is something countries across the world are squaring up to as well. No wonder the few wise thoughts about leadership ring true  for all nations, not just America – how leadership  should welcome questioning, critiquing and arguments against itself; how it should be about ethics, decency and dignity, and inspire trust in adversity. That its foundational element should be empathy, the human emotion which is needed the most in the face of the growing pandemic of hatred and intolerance.

The charm of a film festival lies precisely in the fact that while the films have unintended dialogue with each other, we as viewers make those conversations our own.

Namrata Joshi is an independent writer and well-known film critic. She is the author of Reel India: Cinema off the Beaten Track (Hachette, 2019).