‘American Fiction’ wins People’s Choice at TIFF

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TORONTO, Sept 18, (AP): Cord Jefferson’s “American Fiction,” a biting satire starring Jeffrey Wright as a disillusioned academic, has won the People’s Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a much-watched bellwether in the Oscar race. “American Fiction” is the directorial debut of Jefferson, the veteran TV writer of “Watchmen” and “Succession,” and an adaptation of Percival Everett’s 2001 novel “Erasure.” The film, about an author who resents that the literary industry is only interested in “Black books” that cater to the stereotypes of white audiences, emerged as a breakout hit at TIFF. Toronto’s audience award winner, voted on by festival attendees, has historically nearly always signified a best-picture contender at the Academy Awards. Since 2012, every People’s Choice winner at TIFF has gone on to score a best-picture nod.

This image released by MGM shows Erika Alexander, (left), and Jeffrey Wright in a scene from ‘American Fiction.’ (AP)

In 2018, when “Green Book” won, it announced the film as a surprise awards contender. (Peter Farrelly’s film went on to win Best Picture at the Oscars.) Last year, Steven Spielberg’s “The Fabelmans” won Toronto’s top prize. First runner-up went to Alexander Payne’s “The Holdovers,” starring Paul Giamatti as a curmudgeonly boarding school teacher tasked with staying with a handful of students over Christmas break in the 1970s. The second runner-up was Hayao Miyazaki’s “The Boy and the Heron,” the long-awaited latest Studio Ghibli film from the Japanese anime master. “American Fiction,” which MGM will release in theaters Nov. 3, co-stars Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross. In an interview, Jefferson said he immediately connected with Everett’s book. “I was having the exact same conversations with Black colleagues in both professions: Why are we always writing about misery and trauma and violence and pain inflicted on Blacks?” said Jefferson. “Why is this what people expect from us? Why is this the only thing we have to offer to culture?” The Toronto International Film Festival, which wrapped up Sunday, was diminished this year due to the ongoing actors and writers strikes.

Red carpet premieres were mostly without movie stars, detracting from some of the buzz that the largest film festival in North American typically generates. It followed a similarly strike-affected Venice Film Festival, where the festival’s top prize, the Golden Lion, went to Yorgos Lanthimos’ “Poor Things.” (That film skipped TIFF.) The People’s Choice winner for documentary went to Robert McCallum’s “Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe” and the midnight madness award went to Larry Charles’ “Dicks: The Musical.” The festival’s juried competition awards were given to Tarsem Singh Dhandwar’s “Dear Jassi,” winner of the Platform section, and Meredith Hama-Brown’s “Seagrass,” which took the FIPRESCI award from international critics. Meanwhile, Bayard Rustin, the civil rights activist and primary architect of the 1963 March on Washington, who often worked tirelessly out of the limelight, takes center stage in the new Netflix drama “Rustin.”

The film, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival, stars Colman Domingo as Rustin, a towering figure who worked for decades alongside Martin Luther King Jr. and whose vision of the March on Washington – site of the “I Have a Dream” speech – led to one of the most indelible moments of American history. “I believe in social dislocation and creative trouble,” Rustin once said. “Rustin,” directed by veteran theater and film director George C. Wolfe, is the first narrative feature from Higher Ground, Barack and Michelle Obama’s production company.

Led by a powerhouse performance by Domingo that’s already being called a likely Academy Award nomination for best actor, “Rustin” aims to celebrate a pivotal but undersung civil rights hero. “So much of what he did was compassionate and fueled by responsibility – not arrogance but responsibility,” says Wolfe. “He had a brain that was organizationally astonishing. What would make him heroic was not fueled by selfishness. And he was funny.” Rustin, who died in 1987, was an openly gay Black man, who lived through a time when being either was enough to put him in jail. In 1953, Rustin spent 50 days in jail and was registered as a sex offender – a conviction that was posthumously pardoned in 2020 by California Gov. Gavin Newsom. Wolfe, a major theater figure who directed Tony Kushner’s “Angels in America: Millennium Approaches” and Suzan-Lori Parks’ Pulitzer Prize-winning “Topdog/Underdog” and created the musical “Bring in ‘Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk,’” was initially drawn to Rustin as a subject after learning about him while working as creative director for the National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta. Wolfe, himself a Black gay man with a laser focus on putting together a production, identified strongly with Rustin’s sense of purpose and his refusal to be neatly defined. “My definition of myself is so much larger,” says Wolfe. “I’m not going to waste time arguing with you about what I can and cannot do because I’m busy. Clearly, you aren’t that busy because you’re busy trying to place me in a box.

That I really get. It’s like: ‘I’m directing ‘Angels in the America’ a seven-hour play, get out of my way.’ ‘I’m doing a movie about Bayard Rustin. I gotta do my job.’ Can I get shame out of my way so I can go do this? Can I get fear out of my way so I can go do this?” Rustin, a Pennsylvania-raised Quaker, was famously hard to pin down. The illegitimate son of an immigrant from the West Indies, he was a communist, then a socialist and pacifist who believed strongly in nonviolent protest. During World War II, he spent 28 months in prison for refusing military service.

Later, he became a prominent supporter of Israel. After personal experiences of discrimination, he became committed to eradicating segregation. Rustin helped organize the first freedom rides and once spent 22 days on a North Carolina chain gang after being arrested on one ride. He was a central planner of the 1955-1956 Montgomery bus boycott. Former President Obama, who awarded Rustin the Congressional Medal of Freedom in 2013, gave some suggestions to Wolfe after seeing a cut of the film. “Rustin,” which will open in select theaters on Nov. 3 and arrive on Netflix on Nov. 17, is Wolfe’s second straight film for the streaming service, following the Oscar-nominated “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.”

The 2020 film featured Chadwick Boseman in one of his final performances. Wolfe acknowledges there would have been a part for Boseman in “Rustin.” “Without question,” he says. “We had talked about working together. He sent me a script to look at, I sent him something I had written. So it’s very much to me an incomplete conversation.” “Rustin” dramatizes the frenetic work ahead of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom and Rustin’s balancing of many competing factions, from the NAACP to labor unions and police forces. The supporting cast includes Chris Rock as NAACP director Roy Wilkins, Jeffrey Wright as Baptist pastor Adam Clayton Powell Jr., Audra McDonald as activist Ella Baker, and Aml Ameen as King.

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