Themes find their way into the festival screening schedule I curate every year. Sometimes it happens consciously. I recognize an actor/actress with multiple titles and I seek out those films. Or I decide to discover the narratives of another country, a place I long to visit in this small way. Of course, there are instances where an idea slips into the process, unknown and like a ghost, ends up haunting my days. It might take me a few days to notice. Or maybe I don’t realize what’s been going on until after I return home and attempt to reframe my festival experience.
TIFF18 got its hooks offscreen, when I attended the panel on Diversity in Film Criticism (which opened my festival coverage). I knew all about TIFF’s concerted effort to offer credentials to more critics of color and I can’t discount the swells of pride I’ve had dashing between screenings, catching glimpses of more than a sprinkling of diverse folks in those inevitable lines in and around the theaters.
But it has been onscreen that I’ve found the lasting impression. My evolving film slate has delved into questions of representation, maybe even a deeper debate about blackness and its definition, one that reaches beyond the United States. This is not a uniquely American problem, not for people of color and not for the societies they find themselves in that are not originally their own.
I argue that I am American, first and foremost. I know nothing else. I can’t pinpoint a country, region or village beyond Western North Carolina, where I know that my maternal grandmother’s grandfather was the first freedman in our family. We were here before Solomon, but no one knows for how long. Generations likely, so this place is mine. I don’t belong to it; America belongs to me.
But TIFF18 has made a case for how so many other people of color have struggled to find places of belonging.
Angelo, an Austrian/Luxomberg release from director Markus Schleinzer, dramatizes a real-life abduction narrative. A young African boy (dubbed Angelo Soliman) is brought to Vienna in the 18th century, where he is baptized and introduced into the the highest levels of court life and culture. It goes without saying that there are limits placed on Angelo, forcing him to develop a definition of freedom for himself, which he realizes he has no real control over. We see Angelo’s life in stages – from early childhood through death and beyond – and begin to appreciate that he never truly has the agency to become a man in his own right; he’s a thing, a symbol, a toy or pet for those around him to engage and leave as whimsy suits them.
I ended up fast-forwarding from the 18th century to the 20th century and one of our darkest periods – Germany during World War II. Amma Asante (A United Kingdom, Belle) explores the evils of Nazi Germany, one key step removed from the Jewish experience in Where Hands Touch, focusing here on the story of Lenya (Amandla Stenberg), a biracial teen whose German mother (Abbie Cornish) guarantees that the girl has German citizenship, despite having an African father (unseen except in photos). She is a proud child of the Fatherland, but in a country driven by a need for complete racial purity, Lenya (and all those like her) are as problematic as the Jews.
The movie settles into the typical teen coming-of-age convention of a forbidden first love, although the complication for Lenya and her beau Lutz (George MacKay) is that he’s an eager young Nazi, ready to fight on the front lines for the country, while his father (Christopher Eccleston), a high-level officer in the army watches with a seething ferocity tempered by a real and honest love and desire to protect his son. This is an obvious situation where love cannot conquer all.
The compelling dilemma and the crux of the narrative revolves around Lenya’s deep desire to be a proud child of her country. Like Lutz, we see in her the longing to be just like every other young German, but I never felt her internal struggle with self-hatred. Wanting Lutz, wanting to be like Lutz or her younger half-brother (who is not biracial and thus able to participate in the Hitler Youth activities) leads to some questions about her father and what he was fighting for at the time he met her mother, but she never succumbs to desperate loathing of her black body.
That fear and loathing takes center stage in Farming, from actor Adewale Akinnuoye-Agbaje making his directorial debut and drawing from his own experiences growing up as a child born in England of Nigeria parents who farmed (fostered) him to a white working-class family in the 1960s, so that he could enjoy full support due to his British citizenship while his parents worked and studied.
Farming is a welfare story gone horrifically wrong. The white mother (Kate Beckinsale) who takes Enitan (Damon Idris) in has a menagerie of African child and a twisted sense of love and desire to do the right thing. Enitan would do anything to prove his love for her, but when he gets nothing in return from her or anyone else around him, he falls in with a group of skinheads who look like punks playacting their favorite rowdy scenes from A Clockwork Orange.
All around are signs proclaiming a need to maintain the whiteness of England at all costs and Enitan swallows the sentiments whole, poisoning his soul. He becomes a pet of the skinheads, a rabid dog unleashed on black victims and white gang enemies. He’s cannon fodder, a front line sacrifice that doesn’t have the good sense to die.
It is painful to watch Enitan attempt to mask his face in white powder or read the hateful slogans he scribbles all over the walls of his room. In some ways, these actions are worse than the violent outbursts, his pummeling on black bodies, which are expressions of his self-hatred. If he could only beat it down, beat it out of himself, then maybe he would belong to the group.
Farming plays out like a curious reversal of the American skinhead/neo-Nazi movies we see, like American History X or Guy Nattiv’s Skin, currently screening at TIFF, where a white protagonist submits to the dangerous gravitational pull of these groups only to correct course after leaving great swaths of pain and devastation in their wake. It would be difficult to imagine how this racial flip could be dramatized in the United States.
Intriguingly, comedian Dave Chappelle tweaked the notion for incisive laughs on The Chappelle Show in the Clayton Bigsby sketch, about a blind racist (played by Chappelle) raised without an understanding of his blackness who ventures out into the world and deals with being exposed and his own feelings of self-hatred. The humor bites in real ways, much like Farming’s non-violent scenes, because we understand how these racial toxins infect the souls of not only these characters, but all of us.