Perceptive reflections of Black life in 2021 Toronto International Film Festival

Attica, the documentary that investigates the 1971 Attica Prison Riots, was on of the featured films at the 2021 Toronto International Film Festival.

After a year of COVID, TIFF returned as a hybrid festival with in-person screenings in Toronto and digital screenings around the world. A fine selection of African Diaspora films, films with Black actors in their cast and general-release films brought the magic of TIFF alive again.

Attica (***1/2) The 1971 Attica Prison Riots, the country’s longest and deadliest prison rebellion, lives in the nation’s memory, but the details are murky. This investigative doc sheds light on the event and systemic problems in state and federal penitentiaries. Back in the day, the maximum-security Attica Correctional Facility in upstate New York was run by White administrators and guards. The prisoners were mostly Black and Brown. That volatile culture-clash is recounted by cons who survived the carnage and the children of guards who didn’t. Negotiations by social activists (William Kunstler), Black Panthers (Bobby Seale) and investigative journalists (John Johnson) seemed futile. The makeshift infirmary that was better than the prison’s own health dept. is recalled. The Muslims who protected the 33 guard hostages are remembered. Images of naked men, hands on their heads lined up like slaves preparing to be shipped out are haunting.

Degradation and a quest for dignity sparked the upheaval, or as Malcolm X had put it years earlier: “We declare our right on earth to be treated like a human being.” Award-winning documentarian Stanley Nelson (Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool) unearths some shocking revelations, e.g.: After the slaughter, initial media reports stated some hostages’ throats had been cut by cons—a condemnation of the prisoners. In fact, except for prison guard William Quinn, who died early on, the 10 hostage fatalities were a result of militia gunfire. Footage from the real ordeal and interviews from long ago and today are vivid. It’s all here. Truth be told. An uprising and a massacre researched and analyzed by a skilled and inquisitive filmmaker.

Dionne Warwick: Don’t Make Me Over (***) Marie Dionne Warwick, a legendary vocalist to some and America’s favorite meddling Twitter Auntie to others, is on her game and this is her history. Recordings and videotape of live performances have given Warwick’s publicist-turned-filmmaker Dave Wooley and co-director David Heilbroner plenty of ammunition. An impressive array of the singer’s pals (Gladys Knight, Stevie Wonder, Elton John, et al) narrate the chapters of her life story. The most memorable tribute may by that of Whitney Houston. The young Warwick hit high notes only angels can sing, and with her sharp cheekbones and super-model figure clearly Dionne’s mini-me was Whitney.

Wooley chronicles Warwick’s historic achievements: First Black woman to win a Grammy for a pop song in 1969.  First female artist in Grammy history to win Best Pop and R&B Performance in the same year, 1980. She instigated the ‘That’s What Friends Are For”’ AIDS-fight benefit song, declared bankruptcy and floundered with her Psychic Friend’s Network. What’s on view becomes increasingly intriguing as classy, unflappable, self-assured Warwick seems to relish the attention. The most poignant moment in this 95-minute promo reel (editor Stephen Perry) is Warwick’s run in with Snoop Dogg who was disrespecting women in his rap lyrics. Auntie Dionne schooled the Dogg and he lived to tell the story in this insightful doc, which surprisingly doesn’t leave much off the record.

Hold Your Fire (**1/2) Before it became a hipster hood, Williamsburg, Brooklyn was a melting-pot, working-class neighborhood. Back in 1973, on an ill-fated day, a quartet of Black Muslims entered a sporting goods store to steal rifles. It was a fool’s errand. Shu’aib Raheem, age 23, was the thoughtless leader and a member of the Black Liberation Army. Raheem had no clear-sighted endgame, so a botched robbery turned into a hostage siege. It was the longest in NYC history and the first to enlist the help of a hostage negotiator. Documentarian Stefan Forbes (Boogie Man: The Lee Atwater Story), with an assist from consulting producer Sam Pollard (MLK/FBI), interviews the survivors or survivors’ offspring, meticulously recreating the time, place, altercation, negotiations and outcome that could have gone the way of Attica. But didn’t.

According to old and new footage, archival photos and newspaper article scans, the cool head in the middle of the combustible situation was Harvey Schlossberg, a nerdy budding NYPD psychologist. He was a surprisingly wise traffic cop with a Ph.D.: “Get words going and you can calm them down.” And so, talking versus violence became the new alternative. Between the imbecilic robbers and trigger-happy police, only the multicultural group of hostages and nimble-minded store owner garner real sympathy. Also on view are quests for redemption and explanations for racists and tribal behavior that seem hollow. This is a wonky, fact-based Dog Day Afternoon-like doc that is fascinating on many levels but more fitting for a criminology class than a theater or TV. It’s sobering to think that defusing a deadly situation through negotiation was once a revolutionary idea.

The Guilty (***) This American made adaptation of Denmark’s 2019 Oscar submission for the Best Foreign Language is as tense as its predecessor. L.A. police officer Joe Baylor (Jake Gyllenhaal, Southpaw), a disgraced cop brought up on misconduct charges, has been relegated to a desk job answering 911 calls. Nearby wildfires coat the city with smoke so thick Los Angelenos could walk on it. Near the end of a long shift a woman (Riley Keough) calls in, she’s petrified. Joe thinks she’s being abducted by her ex-husband, who may kill her. He’s alarmed, calls the California Highway Patrol and fellow cops for help and tries to save her.

Directed by Antoine Fuqua (Training Day) and produced by Gyllenhaal, this minimalist production stays close to the bone. One or two sets. Only a few on-camera actors. The weight is on the protagonist, Fuqua, editor Jason Ballantine, cinematographer Maz Makhani and the largely heard and not seen cast to sustain climatic tension for 90 riveting minutes. Gyllenhaal’s performance is as strong as a one-man, Tony-caliber Broadway play. Equal praise to the entire cast: Ethan Hawke, Keough, Christina Vidal Mitchell, Eli Goree, Da’Vine Joy Randolph, David Castañeda, Paul Dano, Peter Sarsgaard. This taut crime/suspense/thriller has a message, dispensed by a savvy police officer: “Broken people help broken people.” If viewers are amazed by this U.S. version, they should stream the original Danish version, too.

Lingui, The Sacred Bonds (***1/2) For Amina (Achouackh Abakar Souleymane), life is hard but she’s thriving in a small dusty neighborhood just outside of the city of N’Djamena, Chad. She makes a meager living salvaging wire from tires and turning the metal into mini-grills she sells on street corners. As a single mom, cast out from her family in shame, she is disheartened when her own 15-year-old daughter Maria (Rihane Khalil Alio) is expelled from school for being pregnant. Mom and daughter quarrel. Maria: “I want an abortion. I don’t want to be like you.” Amina: “Tell me who the father is. I’ll make him face his responsibilities.” Mahamat-Saleh Haroun, a male writer/director, audaciously and successfully ventures into feminist allegory territory. The film’s pro-choice theme couldn’t be more timely, and filtered through the prism of Islamic religion, where Imams and men make decisions for women, highlighting this basic human right is even more vital. Haroun’s sensitivity and style is laudable on many levels. A brevity of dialogue, entrancing visuals (cinematographer Mathieu Giombini), tight editing (Marie-Hélène Dozo), simple realistic production design and a sublime score (Wasis Diop) blend together perfectly. Female characters finding ways to thrive in and circumvent conservative, patriarchal religions/cultures makes this a very perceptive and enlightening parable.

Oscar Peterson: Black + White (***) Most Americans won’t know his name, recordings, compositions or why he’s so revered by pianists and Canadians. A few may recognize his civil rights anthem ‘Hymn to Freedom,’ which was sung at Obama’s inauguration. However, keyboardists in the know (Herbie Hancock), band leaders (Jon Baptiste) and pop stars (Billy Joel) covet his piano dexterity and feel Oscar Peterson left shoes too big to fill. He was born in Montreal, played with Count Basie as a precocious teen and toured with Ella Fitzgerald as a young adult. His talent and that strong foundation led him to prestigious performances at Carnegie Hall.

Big bands, quartets and trios benefited from his expertise. Fellow musicians sang his praises: “He played all 88 keys.” Ellington, in his infinite wisdom pushed him into a solo career. “Why?” asked Peterson. Ellington: “Because some people enjoy their caviar without the eggs and onions.” Director Barry Avrich (David Foster Off the Record) shows great respect for the teen sensation that toured and recorded even into the final chapter of his life. Seeing how he performed even after a paralyzing stroke is an inspiration as is the way his grand piano is still used in concerts to this day. This informative and touching documentary will remind viewers that real jazz heroes live forever.

For more information about the Toronto International Film Festival go to <tiff.net/>.

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