Ten years of attendance and I have to say that the Toronto International Film Festival (the 2018 edition) certainly feels like a celebration, an embarrassment of riches. The task of filling out a screening schedule has been infinitely complicated by the number of must-sees and the smaller, more curious offerings tickling my fancy. Of course, this year I am also dealing with wearing multiple hats. I have added to my usual press/industry coverage role, having stepped in as a programmer/curator for the Over-the-Rhine International Film Festival (which kicks off its inaugural run on September 26th and runs through September 30th). Year One’s programming is in the can, so to speak, but I love how TIFF gives me an early shot at scouting for next year’s event.
So I’m covering and curating multiple festivals at once, but I feel its worth initiating this dialogue about TIFF18 by spotlighting a more indirect (yet vital) concern. I took an usual detour from the festival screens to attend one of the TIFF Industry Conference events on day two – a Moguls session, featuring a head-spinningly dense report from Dr. Stacey L. Smith, the co-author of the inclusion rider template and the Founder/Director of the USC Annenberg Inclusion Initiative, which studies all manner of inequalities in the entertainment industry. The Initiative’s 2018 intersectional report focused on equity in film criticism.
Without much surprise, the data – examining the top-300 films released between 2015 and 2017 and the coverage of those films – laid bare the truth that under-represented critics, particularly female critics are dangerously invisible, as much as the performers and narratives on the production side of the equation. White males dominate the critical discussion, which means they set the tone, define the standards and create the evolving canon of films that will be studied and continue to move the form forward.
As a critic of color, I understand the report from the inside and found myself part of the amen corner, once the session’s speakers took to the stage to expand on the report. Franklin Leonard (Founder/CEO of The Black List) hosted the forum featuring Jacqueline Coley (editor, Rotten Tomatoes), Valerie Complex (freelance film critic), Gil Robertson (Founder/President, African American Film Critics Association), and Angie Han (Deputy Entertainment Editor, Mashable). While there was plenty of necessary and quite righteous fire in the comments from the panel (especially from Valerie Complex who is a critical superhero willing to exert every ounce of her great power and in the responsible service of expressing her opinion), what fascinated me more was an idea that everyone danced around, but needs to be pointed out constantly.
Diversity, as a cultural buzzword, will never be the call to action we might like for it to be until we recognize that the notion of finding reflections for oneself on the screen (or in the critical debates) is about more than that simplistic visual marker. Of course, I want to see more black folks and black narratives, but that’s not the only way that I define myself and what I’m looking for. I am a black man, an American enthralled by Scandinavian crime fiction (both the literature and the films adapted from it), psychological thrillers, an eager novice seeking to learn more about African films amongst a myriad of other interests. I am a locus of intersectionality who should not be pigeon-holed by any one aspect (and let’s be honest, I’m talking about the most obvious one).
Leonard posed a question to the group, about the challenges they face that would not be relevant to their white male counterparts. And, at its core, the query targets the assumption that white men are the only people capable of being impartial and open to a “diversity” of ideas. They can be multitudes. We see it all the time in the stories presented from their perspectives.
The challenge is insuring that everyone else gets the same level of respect for their equally infinite inner lives. That’s real representation.