Toronto Black Film Festival: Essential Viewing With Serious Highlights

By Liam Lacey 

The Rape of Recy Taylor, the opening-night film for the sixth annual Toronto Black Film Festival (running February 14 to 19), could not be more topical, bridging the social movements of #metoo and #blacklivesmatter. The film's subject, who died at the age of 97 in late December, was invoked by Oprah Winfrey in her Golden Globes speech as "a name you should know," the victim of an assault by six white men in 1944 in small-town Alabama.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, opening-night film for the sixth annual Toronto Black Film Festival.

The Rape of Recy Taylor, opening-night film for the sixth annual Toronto Black Film Festival.

While Nancy Buerski's film is grounded in interviews with Taylor and her family, it's also about a wide reconsideration of the civil rights movement and the role of black women.  The film was inspired by Danielle McGuire's 2010 book, At the Dark End of the Street: Black Women, Rape, and Resistance — A New History of the Civil Rights from Rosa Parks to the Rise of Black Power. McGuire appears extensively in the film, as does Yale historian Chrystal Feimster (Southern Horrors: Women and the Politics of Rape and Lynching) provide the historical context of a critical link between civil rights and sexual violence.

Most of us have probably heard the story about how, on December 1, 1955 in Montgomery, Alabama, a mild-mannered 42-year-old seamstress named Rosa Parks refused to give her seat to a white man, because, she said, her feet hurt. Parks was arrested, which led to the year-long Montgomery Bus Boycott, the rise of Martin Luther King and the end of legal segregation with the American Civil Rights Act of 1964. The story, as Parks' biographer Jeanne Theoharis has said, amounts to a fable.

In the last couple of decades, we have gained a fuller picture of Parks' history as a veteran civil rights activist. More than a decade before the Montgomery Bus Boycott — as elected secretary for the Montgomery chapter of the National Association of Coloured People — Parks investigated the assault of 24-year-old mother Recy Taylor, who was abducted and raped at gunpoint by six white men. Taylor and her family reported the crime to the police but after two trials, the assailants were let free, even though one of them confessed to the crime.

Subsequently, Parks helped form the nationwide Committee for Racial Justice for Recy Taylor, a group that gained national attention and such prominent participants as W.E. Dubois and Oscar Hammerstein.

Though the bus boycott took place 11 years later, says McGuire: "The entire boycott is rooted in the defence of women like Recy Taylor... Without the bus boycott there's no demonstration of how non-violent revolution can happen."

The festival has added an encore screening of The Rape of Recy Taylor on February 15, 9 pm, at Jackman Hall, Art Gallery of Ontario.  

Other highlights

The Toronto Black Film Festival, now in its sixth year, is a spin-off of the Montreal Black Film Fest, founded 13 years ago by Haitian-Canadian actress Fabienne Colas. (Another spin-off, The Halifax Black Film Festival, started last year).  What that means is that several films that have already won jury prizes or honourable mentions in Montreal last fall are also screening in Toronto.

Those includes a sinister real-life version of the sci-fi thriller The Boys from Brazil, the documentary Boy 23: The Forgotten Boys of Brazil. The film follows the research of historian Sidney Aguilar about a group of 50 black boys taken from a Rio de Janeiro orphanage and used as slave labour and designated with numbers by a wealthy Brazilian family who were dedicated to Nazi ideology. 

Also in documentaries, look for Marvin Booker Was Murdered, a film about a 56-year-old homeless street pastor in Denver, who was tasered and beaten to death in police custody in 2010, leading to a six-million dollar wrongful death settlement.  Another honourable mention from Montreal is the closing-night film, Kalushi:  The Story of Solomon Mahlangu, a biopic about the South African martyr, who was hanged for murder in 1979 at the age of 22.

Kalushi is one of a five feature dramas or documentaries (out of 21 long-form films) from South Africa in this festival. The South African entries also include a comedy, writer-director Stephina Zwane's Baby Mamas, about four professional women and single mothers, bonding and looking for romance.

And from the Canadian side, there's Rosey Ugo Ede's celebratory Oliver Jones: Mind Hands Heart, about the jazz pianist's emotional farewell concerts last year, after 75 years of playing the piano.

For a complete schedule of films and ticket information for this year's Toronto Black Film Festival, go to  their website.