You Really Need to Check Out TIFF’s Black Star Retrospective

TIFF’s artistic director Cameron Bailey on the importance of looking to the past.

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Nov 2 2017, 8:59pm

Image sources: TIFF Black Star

When it comes to black cinema, recent critical darlings obviously stand out; Moonlight, Get Out, Fences, Selma or The Help to name a few. They share a rawness, a bitterness, and a boldness that speaks to the full range of black identity. And in diversity terms, while there's no room to deny the progression, there's something to be said about the growing pains that it took to get here. Do you remember the first controversial moment a black man hit a white man on screen? Or the time when Spike Lee was accused of inciting riots over a film?

So enters a reminder called Black Star, a series that includes films, and shorts coming by way of the Toronto Film Festival through BFI London, and its curator, Ashley Clark. Beginning on November 3, and extending to December 22, the series will serve as a crash course to 100 years of Black cinema. TIFF's artistic director, Cameron Bailey, helped greenlight the project himself, and understands the importance of looking back as a black man. Given his 30-year tenure as a critic and programmer, it only made sense to have a convo with him about the importance of a series like Black Star, and why, despite our progress, the past remains so important.

VICE: I want to start with a pretty basic question. If you can remember, what was that film you recall seeing that resonated with you just as a black man, watching a black made film.
Cameron Bailey: The most recent one is probably an obvious one for me, and that's Moonlight. I saw it a year and a half ago leading up to TIFF. I knew of Barry Jenkins' work but I was still floored by how powerful this film was. And floored by something I had almost never seen in a movie. The tenderness between black men, regardless of the story of romance or sexual attraction. It wasn't all that, but more about black men who cared about each other. Who were struggling to express that. That was something I realized as I was watching it, that I don't think I've ever seen that in a movie before. And that was the thing that really hit home for me. I've seen it so many times since. And it became such phenomenon. But for a lot of black people, that portion of it, that kind of emotion and gentleness, which usually, black men are not allowed to show. All of those things really helped redefine how movies can show black masculinity.

I wanted to ask this question because we're getting more of these identifiably black films like Moonlight, and perhaps the upcoming Black Panther. It's ushering in a different appreciation for black-made cinema. By that same token, it took pain, and genius to get here. Describe to the importance of being able to remind people of with TIFF: Black Star.
Yes, I think the most important thing is to remember that we've been here. There is a history that it goes back a hundred years, all the way back to the very beginning of film. And the TIFF: Black Star series will show movies starting from 1913 all the way up until the very recent present with Ava DuVernay's Middle of Nowhere. There's a continuity that shows black people making films, and starring in films, sometimes in opposition to the racist representation that was going on, to the stereotypes of the Black Buck, and the Mammy and the Coon. All those demeaning images that were in movies from the beginnings. And then you have people like Paul Robeson, Sidney Poitier, and Dorothy Dandridge who were a counter to that. Who showed not just black people, but everybody that there was a wider range, that there were things that showed the talent, genius, depth, pride and subjectivity of black folk. Folks that weren't just two dimensional stereotypes.

There's also something to be said that these movies are best seen the way movies are meant to be seen, in a theatre with other people, sharing that experience on a larger than life screen. Because so much of what we do with our movie watching revolves around identifying. We project ourselves into that big screen and the stories that we're watching. And when you see Sidney Poitier command the screen In the Heat of the Night for instance, that's a powerful thing. That's an emotion and experience you don't often get. I personally saw most of the movies in this series on a TV growing up and yeah, that was all good, but to see them in a theatre is a really different experience.

And seeing them on screen was, of course, a rarity. The reality is that some black films historically have not been given a fair shake from a basic critique standpoint; barring them from festivals. They often revolved around a culture not easily identifiable by many who've done it for a living. Given your position, how do you view all that.
We're showing a film called To Sleep with Anger by Charles Burnett and he's somebody that has been underappreciated for most of his career. He studied in Los Angeles and made his first film as a part of that LA rebellion of filmmakers with movies like Killer of Sheep and other selections afterwards. I remember when To Sleep with Anger came out in the early 1990s, and it was seen as a real departure. Danny Glover is in the movie, but it was seen as this small independent film. I think a lot of critics at the time didn't really have the experience or the cultural framework to assess the film and it kind of languished honestly, and that's true of a lot of Burnett's films. I'm glad to see that the Oscars are giving him an honourary Academy Award. He's finally getting the recognition that he's long deserved and that's just one example of that struggle.

Speak on that struggle. Because you once said that the issues that birthed movements like #Oscarssowhite came from a structural problem; apart from a series like Black Star, what do you feel needs to be done, and how would you summarize the progress of the industry?
There is a kind of a structure that's in place to assess the quality of films and to give them relative value to each other. It starts from when films are being made to people who have the power to greenlight films, who are looking at screen players or giving money to films or not. And then how they're distributed to how they're marketed, the amount of money that's put behind that. Then there's the reviewers that say whether a film is worth one or five stars, and we have the festivals that say yes and no to films based on some of that information. That's the whole structure that confers value on movies. That value has a cultural framework to it. It's based on what people grew up knowing, what they saw as valuable in terms of what they were taught in school and in university. Expectations and personal identification with the stories that they're hearing. And that all gets played out in many different ways.

Spike Lee's career is one example of that. I remember when Do The Right Thing came out and some of the critics were saying that it was going to start riots in the streets because black people would not be able to contain themselves watching the story on the screen (laughs). So, if you had more black critics reviewing Spike's movies in 1989, there would have been a different reaction. We're showing Malcolm X by Spike, which again, was seen as a very incendiary film and was seen by some reviewers at the time as being biased. Again, that's partly based on where the reviewers were coming from. I've only recently discovered the remake of Annie, which is going to be in TIFF: Black Star as well because I've got a child a home. He's now eight years old, and I showed this film to him and his cousin. And it's one of the few films that even has a black girl protagonist at the centre of the film. When it first came out, it got OK reviews, and was dismissed as being not that great. But if you've got a black child at home who is starved for images of themselves on the big screen, you look at a movie like Annie in a different way. All of those things make a world of difference.

Sidney Poitier and Rod Steiger in The Heat of the Night.

I consider myself knowledgeable around black films, but there are some here that never I've never really seen, like Ethnic Notes for example. When it comes to the young black audience, tell me what it means for us to be aware of this history?
I think there's so much that can be gained from this. I asked a woman named Ella Cooper to put together a program of black Canadian films to become a part of the series. So we got films like Rude by Clement Virgo and Soul Survivor, and a number of really powerful short films by Canadian filmmakers. To see a film like Ethnic Notion that really breaks down a lot of the stereotypes that we all grew up with. To see Carmen Jones and Invitation of Life and Stormy Weather, and to see black women in the centre of these films in the 1940s and 50s when it was so rare.

Take the first time a black character in a film hit a white actor In the Heat of the Night with Sidney Poitier, and how scandalous that was. All of those things, in an understanding that there's a long history of struggles which in some cases we're still fighting, I think that's incredibly useful. I saw a piece just this week saying that there's less than five percent of black writers in the writing rooms of TV shows on TV these days. So obviously, there's still a problem in terms of representation, but we're now living in a world with Atlanta, Insecure, Greenleaf, and so many other great shows. It makes it far more important to look back and to understand where all that came from and how we had things so many years ago. We're all a part of that lineage.

You've been holding TIFF down for years, and I'm sure you have a big say in what gets greenlit. What sort of responsibility do you often feel, since to be honest, you're pretty much one of the few.
You know that's a great question. I've been in the film world as a critic and programmer for almost 30 years now. And I've always tried to make change and help change be made because I think that change is still required. What we see in our screens, whether it's on a traditional or small movie screen still doesn't reflect the full range of experience that's out there. Some stories get told more often or with more substance than others. So I'm trying, every chance I get, to help open up spaces for those people who are underrepresented, and that includes black folks, but it's not exclusive to black folks obviously. Our audience should reflect the community that we're in. We all saw the census data released last week that showed what kind of city Toronto now is. Most people are people of colour now. Asian, Black, Arab, Latin America, this is the majority in the city of Toronto and the GTA generally. So I want to make sure that we're reaching all of that audience, that our audience reflects where we are. Everybody needs to feels comfortable coming to what TIFF does. I joke when I say that folks should just move into the Lightbox or for the eight weeks that we have Black Star (laughs), because there's something to see every single day. I want it to be a place where everybody can feel like it's their place.

So my most straight forward question. What do you hope film goers ultimately come away with from Black Star?
I hope everybody gets a deeper understanding of what black cinema has been and what they can do. And that there's been a long history of fighting against stereotypes, fighting against racism in terms of representation. But at the same time, there's been some incredibly heroic, brilliant people like the mentioned Sidney Poitier, Paul Robeson, and Dorothy Dandridge who were at the centre of that. And then, for people who see themselves on the big screen, when they watch movies in Black Star, I hope they feel pride. I hope they feel like they've got images that they can connect with, relate to and project themselves upon. Because that's one of the great things that movies do for us. They help us imagine lives that are bigger than ourselves because as black folks, we don't always get a chance to see it. This is a chance when we can.

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