Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Black History Month with directors Norm Jewison, Lee Daniels and Clement Virgo

Tuesday night saw the celebration of Black History Month by the Canadian Film Centre, Canada’s equivalent of the American Film Institute. Taking place at the Isabel Bader Theatre, it began with a private reception for industry guests. Then the theatre filled to capacity to greet director Clement Virgo (Rude, Lie With Me, TV’s "The Wire"), who moderated a conversation that lasted well over an hour with directors Norman Jewison (In the Heat of the Night, Fiddler on the Roof, Moonstruck) and Lee Daniels (Shadowboxer, Precious: Based on the Novel “Push” by Sapphire, and producer of Monster’s Ball).

Many from Toronto’s filmmaking community turned up, including prominent black filmmakers such as David “Sudz” Sutherland (Love, Sex and Eating the Bones), Charles Officer (Nurse.Fighter.Boy), Powys Dewhurst (Delroy Kincaid), Alison Duke (Raisin' Kane: A Rapumentary); writer Andrew Moodie; and broadcasters Joan Jenkinson (S-VOX) and Karen King (CanWest). The audience gave Jewison a warm ovation when he was brought out after highlights from his films were shown. Some recited along with the many familiar lines (“Snap out of it!” “They call me Mr. Tibbs!”) After some humourous awkwardness about whether they should stay onstage for the clips from Daniels’ films, the audience gave another ovation as Daniels was brought out.

Daniels expressed his love for Toronto, having been here in the fall for the screenings of Precious at the Toronto International Film Festival. It claimed the festival’s prestigious Audience Choice Award. Although I have previously written about how I think the film disappointing, there’s no denying that it has a strong emotional punch.

Their discussion covered a wide range of topics, but focused primarily on the careers of Daniels and Jewison with respect to the role of black artists and black America. Jewison spoke of traveling in the southern states and being shocked to see how black people, many who had been asked to serve and possibly die for their country, returned to be treated with such disrespect. He mentioned that he got some heat for showing solidarity with them, for example boarding buses and “sitting where I wanted to sit.” He recounted how when he told Bobby Kennedy he was making In the Heat of the Night, Kennedy was pleased and told him “timing is everything – it’s the right time for this,” and then when Kennedy presented him the New York Critics Award for Best Picture, he repeated “what did I tell you? Timing is everything.”

Jewison admitted that he never expected that an African-American could become Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (Colin Powell) or President (Barack Obama) in his lifetime, and how proud that made “the African-American in me.” This brought one of the many big laughs of the night. Lee Daniels said, “I love this man” which he often repeated, clearly showing genuine admiration for Jewison.

Daniels was himself utterly charming and funny. He talked about how a lot of the haters he has had for each of his films, and how many of them were from the black community itself. Sometimes it was because he dealt with mix-race relations as with Monster’s Ball and Shadowboxer, or because with Precious he shows the underside of the community – not Obama and where they could be, but the ghetto where some of them came from. He also joked about haters for Billy Bob Thornton on Monster’s Ball, because he went home to Angelina Jolie, and came to work with Halle Berry.

He spoke openly about being gay, which one attendee told me was a good thing because the black community can sometimes reveal their own prejudices in that regard. Daniels laughed about how his son asked him if it was alright if he liked girls, and he had to assure him it was fine. He joked about how he didn’t have a style, that his style is “steal.” His reaction to watching the clip of Sidney Poitier slapping a white man was visceral, and he said “I’m going to use that.” Daniels chuckled at the delicate manner in which Jewison addressed giving up Malcolm X to Spike Lee after working hard to develop it, and bringing Denzel Washington on board the project. Jewison said he was impressed by Spike Lee’s passion, but did admit to fighting him on the idea that as white man he wouldn’t understand the black experience. By the end of their lunch meeting, however, he willingly gave the project to Spike.

They took a few questions from the audience as well, before they wrapped up and received one big final standing ovation. Some people left at that point which is too bad. They missed an opportunity to see a big-screen 35mm film projection of In the Heat of the Night. It looked terrific and as Lee Daniels pointed out, it stands the test of time.

It was a fun evening. It left me with a touch of sadness though, that there has been no comparable success for North American-born Asians. I doubt that there will ever be an Asian Best Actor or Actress in my lifetime. And although Ang Lee won best director, he’s not North American-born and all his Hollywood movies are about white people. Still, times are changing and there was no better proof of that than the work of Jewison and Daniels. All in all, a terrific evening, and I hope this becomes a regular event on the Toronto cultural calendar.

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