Dee Rees, Martin McDonagh, Mudbound, Sean Baker, The Florida Project, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri
The Saturday afternoon when the Charlottesville situation was exploding on television and social media, I retreated to my back porch, seething with anger and frustration, after the pathetic response from the White House. I didn’t know what more I could do, and I honestly just couldn’t watch the same old-some old fiasco.
My Twitter feed was full of similarly-minded folks, raging at this broken machine that somehow continued to putter along, as it always has. I was annoyed, with everything, even these critical comrades. So I fired off a quick message to a select few, demanding that we get together at TIFF, watch some films, and reflect on what it all means. It’s a small thing, but its all I know how to do. And slowly, the responses came in.
Now I’m not much of an organizer, so there hasn’t been some unified gathering that’s taken place during the festival. But we’ve gotten together, like we always seem to, in lines at screenings, letting one another cut in, hugging and talking. We blocked pathways for others as we debated the good intentions of George Clooney’s Suburbicon and its sadly bungled racial politics. We spoke of the epic mismanagement of Katheryn Bigelow’s Detroit.
During the press screening of Roman J. Israel Esq, a Toronto writer in my critical fold, hipped me to Black Cop from writer-director Cory Bowles, a film about a black police officer (Ronnie Rowe) dealing with the dual personae of being black and blue while confronting modern social injustice. It is labeled satire, which it certainly is, but its reality is so brutal and biting that it hurts to laugh, as much as it might to cry out. I heard people in the audience react, cheering in support of the flipping of roles as white folks get a taste of what its like to be black in the face of white authority. Somewhere in the heavenly universe, Dick Gregory is watching and laughing his ass off.
Black Cop capped off my eighth day at the festival, which began with the Dee Rees film Mudbound, a film I moved the heavens to include in my schedule and was so richly rewarded for my efforts. I caught Pariah at TIFF during its festival run, and marveled at the intimacy of her vision, how she took such politically charged issues and removed the polemics, the stridency of it all.
With Mudbound, she has advanced at such an astonishing pace, it is difficult to imagine. She’s adapting a novel by Hillary Jordan about two families living in the Mississippi Delta, one white, one black around the time of World War II. Each sends a young man (Garrett Hedlund and Jason Mitchell) off to fight. Each man survives the horrors of war, and comes home to the same nightmares of life that you can never escape. They come back to America. Enough said.
But Rees creates an alternative novel, written in moving images combined with fleeting narration from the book, a representation of the relevant voices of characters stuck in the mud of what it means to be American. It’s weedy roots choke off the potential life and sustenance promised in the soil of the dream.
I’ve been waiting for the film that would define the festival for me, and I found it in Mudbound. This one reminded me of that Saturday, weeks ago, watching America still stuck in the mud.
The funny thing about America and these discussions though is how quick we are to look for obvious reflections that meet familiar and comforting stereotypes. Narrowing the focus to that degree removes intersectionality, the collision of a disparate communities, all struggling for peace of their own.
Earlier in my festival run, I was intrigued The Florida Project due to its insistent gaze at a downtrodden underworld of characters, held together by little Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), a six-year old girl living largely by her considerable wits in a Floridian enclave of motels turned into housing for the disenfranchised lurking in the shadow of Disney World. Moonee’s mother (Bria Vinaite), a child-like figure in her own right, has little time or sense to think about anything beyond the next concern that presents itself. The film, from Tangerine director Sean Baker, wanders through this desolate land, finding fleeting moments of authentic wonder in the midst of careless despair.
Discussions of this film will lead to pronouncements that Baker, in his presentation of Moonee and her mother, has captured examples of the Trump supporters who dared to vote against their own self-interests, but I would argue that this estimation fails to realize that Moonee’s mother resides several levels in a large subterranean hovel beneath Trump’s hungry mob. None of the characters on the margins of The Florida Project have the time or inclination to even bother with voting. We should be amazed that a filmmaker like Baker has even taken it upon himself to turn our gaze to this community, which has been all but lost in the mud.
The 2017 edition of TIFF ended, for me, with a public screening of writer-director Martin McDonagh’s Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, which played like gangbusters for the crowd. McDonagh operates in that sleazy Coen brothers land of noir steeped in black lung humor. He borrows a little extra from the Coins for Three Billboards, adding Frances McDormand to the mix, as Mildred Hayes, the mother of a teenage girl found dead in a field, after having suffered through rape and torture. The police in this small town, led by Sheriff Bill Willoughby (Woody Harrelson), have been unable to unearth a significant lead, which forces Mildred to add pressure to the dying investigation by renting out three massive billboards and leaving messages challenging the sheriff’s competency.
The narrative kicks up a storm of issues, from racism and police brutality to LGBTQ bullying all while illustrating the unadulterated allure and power of retribution. Everyone in this story, and McDonagh has populated it with an assortment of quirky types, bashes up against everyone else, leaving blood and bone and raw nerves exposed.
Yet, it transforms into a tale of redemption by means of hard-earned forgiveness, in most cases without clear resolutions. Few of the narrative plot lines get neatly tied up, but audiences will be more than satisfied by the end, if TIFF crowds are to be trusted. The film took the top audience prize to go along with the best screenplay prize it seized at the Venice Film Festival. In a year without a clear front-runner heading into the awards season, these honors might end up providing the necessary traction for Three Billboards to pull ahead of the pack.
I like the fact that the end of TIFF stubbornly refused to answer any questions about the awards season, because this year, maybe the focus shouldn’t have been on prizes at all. Maybe we will look back at 2017 as a year where film merely served to re-engage us in critical dialogue.