Black Life lights up the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival

By Dwight Brown
NNPA Film Critic

The 2022 Toronto International Film Festival has returned to its former glory with premieres and theatrical screenings. Thousands upon thousands of international moviegoers flocked to cinemas, saw the latest wave of diverse voices, and watched black films that reflected black lives.

Louis Armstrong Black & Blues (****) Louis Armstrong was not always understood. Some thought he was nothing more than an ever-sweaty, ever-smiling Uncle Tom. But others loved his warm personality, big heart, sweet-sounding trumpet and gravelly voice. This illuminating document can move the needle for naysayers.

Satchmo believed that jazz musicians were ambassadors who traveled the world bringing people together, especially blacks and whites. Producer/director Sacha Jenkins (Wu-Tang Clan: Of Mics and Men) backs up this notion by artfully presenting and analyzing every aspect of Armstrong’s difficult life. Avoiding stereotypical documentary technique, he largely lets Armstrong tell his own story, using the musician’s voice from conversations the legend recorded on reel-to-reel audio tapes. Most of the interviewees are off-camera, their voices are used as narration, and the trumpeter is center stage.

(Picture via NNPA)

Armstrong’s life is exhibited in images, archive clips, television shows, films… Life began with a poor childhood in New Orleans, then a stay in a boys’ home where he learned the trumpet. He started a jazz career in Chicago, toured the world and eventually settled in Queens, NY, archiving his memories.

Images of people from photos and newspapers are animated and accompanied by words, they magically move across the screen. Dizzy Gillespie, Artie Shaw, Ossie Davis and Miles Davis add comments. Kudos to cinematographer Ed Lachman and editors Jason Pollard and Alma Herrera-Pazmiño. Kudos to Jenkins who crafted this documentary as an intelligent artist or artistic intellectual. Jazz, R&B, pop and rap musicians owe Armstrong a debt, and this doc proves it. The magical sounds created by Satchmo gave people joy, as did this deeply moving bio/doc.

On the way up (***) It’s hard to name many rap movies that can make you smile, but this one will. Actor-turned-director Sanaa Lathan (Love & Basketball), mixes Boyz ‘n the Hood drama with Straight Outta Compton bravery. This uplifting film is based on a novel by former teenage rapper-turned-novelist Angie Thomas (The Hate You Give). Thomas’ story, played by screenwriter Kay Oyegun, rings true.

Teenage rapper Briana, aka Lil Lawless (Jamila Gray), is the daughter of a late famous hip hop artist and she struggles with her mother (Lathan) who abandoned her when she was just a child . Bri “I lost my innocence the night she left.” Attending a predominantly white high school further exacerbates her anxiety. Life goes in the right direction when her manager Auntie Poo (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, Dolemite is My Name) gets her gigs in rap battles. She stumbles, but then excels.

Lathan connects to the culture and struggles of hip hop musicians. Intense rap battles play out like heavyweight fights. The raw emotions between Bri and mom and the little rapper and the hulking male rivals are burning. The niece’s ambition and her aunt’s sense of abandonment burn. Poo: “You walk around like I haven’t changed your diapers!” A very thoughtful subplot involves a teenage gay friendship/romance that feels normal as rain. Opposite cinematography (Eric Bano, The Forty-Year-Old Version), powerful music (Daniel Wohl) and precise editing (Steven Rosenblum, The Birth of a Nation) also help. Gray is feisty, but Randolph’s Oscar®-worthy hardcore version of Poo burns the screen. Kudos to Lathan for making On the Come Upshine shine like a diamond.

Saint Omer (***) Style trumps substance in this painfully sad French courtroom drama. Laurence (Guslagie Malanda), an African immigrant, is accused of killing her 15-month-old child. Rama (Kayije Kagame), a pregnant novelist, goes to the Saint-Omer Criminal Court room to attend the trial in hopes of being inspired as she prepares to write a book about Medea. The case and its themes of motherhood haunt her.

Doc director Alice Diop imbues her debut feature with enigmatic storytelling and the ingenuity of a seasoned fiction filmmaker. Profound ideas about immigration, colonialism and race are as prominent as the clashes between Western European culture and African mores. Cinematographer Claire Mathon’s camera lingers nostalgically on the faces of women in distress. Thrilling music amplifies the drama. At the end of the film, Nina Simon’s haunting, moaning contralto sings “Little Girl Blue”, stating the obvious, “Sit there…count your fingers…what else is there to do…” The catchy artistry and seductive music should claim top billing.

sydney (***) A documentary by Sidney Poitier sells. Just capture his regal sense of dignity, and everything else is a plus. Interviews old and new allow the Bahamian-born actor to reminisce about his lifespan: born premature, studying in third grade, alone in New York as a teenager, dishwasher aspiring to be an actor and award winner. an Oscar®.

The usual formula of TV clips, photos, and countless interviewees explains how he stumbled upon career-defining roles (Lilies of the Field), had an affair that cost him his marriage, and went from gambling. actor in the making. What’s on display seems a bit overproduced. Parents, initiates, and talking heads sit under movie star lighting, wearing fancy clothes or cool outfits with fashionable hats. Their polished images are more suited to a Vanity Fair broadcast than a memorable documentary.

Instead, if they had been filmed walking or driving through places vital to Poitier’s life and career (e.g. the Brill building), this movement might have made the footage more invigorating and less sedentary. When Opera Winfrey tears up, Harry Belafonte tells stories, and Poitier’s driver during the civil rights movement shares heartbreaking stories, an emotional core emerges. This insightful doc has archived and shared the spirit of Poitiers. But it could have been more. It could have been a pearl.

When the morning comes (***) A young widow (Shaquana Wilson) fights to get her son Jamal (Djamari Roberts) back to Canada and out of Jamaica where bullies threaten him. Her: “Baby, you’re the best part of me. I know you’re destined for a better life. First-time writer/director Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s heartwarming spin on mother/child unions and immigration is fresh, but classic.Classic like Euzhan Palcy’s iconic 1983 film, Sugar Cane Alley.

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Darcy J. Skinner