While women accounted for 51% of all moviegoers back in 2019, of the 100 top-grossing films that year, only 10.7% were directed by women. The Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) is helping to level that playing field. Under a mandate birthed at Cannes in 2016 entitled the “5050x2020 Pledge”, Film Festivals from around the world were encouraged to strive for better gender representation and transparency by the year 2020. TIFF has met that goal by selecting nearly half (46%) of films that are screening this year directed by women (2019 had that percentage at 36%).
“We’ve reached a watershed moment where the entire film world is embracing the fact that women’s voices have been underrepresented for too long,” states Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s co-head and artistic director. “Now is the time where we can bring more of these films to the fore.” For Bailey, the decision stems from conversations about how women represent women’s stories and perspectives in movies.
The idea took shape back in 2018 when TIFF brought on board Joana Vincente as co-head and executive director. An Oscar nominee for the documentary Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, Vicente is a woman in the most powerful role you can hold at an international festival. And while she hopes her position is impacting, she acknowledges there is still a lot of work to do." As she has noted. "If you look at a film school, usually half of the class is made of women, so there is a drop we’re seeing."
The results of Vicente and Bailey’s mission is evident in perusing the 2020 lineup, which includes such diverse voices as Chloe Zhao for Nomadland, Mira Nair with A Suitable Boy, and Tracey Deer for Beans. But it is the presence of two Oscar and Golden Globe-winning actresses, both women of color, who are presenting their directorial debuts, that has both critics and consumers talking.
In Toronto, Halle Berry unveils Bruised and Regina King brings One Night in Miami. Both of these projects were labors of love for the directors and both proved to be more complicated than even they anticipated.
“I had a desire to tell more stories about not only about women but women of color,” notes Berry, who won Best Actress for Monsters Ball. “I realized that if we don't do that for ourselves, chances are (it) wasn't going to happen.”
When the actress first came across the script a few years back, the part of Jackie Justice was written for a 25-year-old white Catholic girl. But while the initial screenplay might not have been written for ‘someone like me’ as Berry says, she immediately gravitated toward the universal theme of redemption through the lens of this fractured and broken character.
“I want to see the human spirit soar. I want to see someone rise above obstacles and still be standing at the end of the day. We're all struggling to survive and get it right and show up for ourselves and for our family. So, there were so many things about it that felt like what I instinctively knew, but my job now was to figure out how I could convince the producers who had the rights to this movie, that they should let me reimagine it for a middle-aged black woman and how I could play this fighter and how I could tell this story.”
Berry succeeded in reimagining the story and convincing the producers to give her the role. That is with one caveat, they invested her with the task of securing a director. While she met with many noted men and women for the assignment, none of them shared her vision for the story; a realization that struck her that in order to tell this story the way she imagined, she would have to do it herself.
"Nobody understands what's in my head,” she laughs when recalling that decision. Though she initially feared the role of acting and directing was too big for her, having 30 years of experience under her belt gave her the confidence that she would get it right. “With my earlier works, I didn't have to make all the decisions that a director makes, but I trusted that I would be able to do that
For King, whose film recounts a historical night back in 1964 when a then 22-year-old Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the Heavyweight boxing title. After the fight, in this fictionalized interpretation, Clay meets with Malcolm X, Jim Brown, and Sam Cooke, and King takes the audience through an emotional and intellectual examination of those who have achieved power but are unsure how to navigate through it.
After being awarded Best Supporting Actress for her performance in If Beale Street Could Talk, the actress was actively looking for an opportunity to direct a feature film, especially a narrative that felt like a love story set in a historical backdrop. Her agent responded with the script for One Night in Miami and King was hooked.
“I had never seen conversations like this happen before on the screen, small screen or big screen,” she says. “I felt like while it was through the voices of these legendary men, I felt like I was listening to conversations from just Black men speaking about the Black man's experience. And I wanted in on that.”
Although she had directed episodic TV before, King had never helmed a feature, but she set her eyes on the prize. Meeting with Kemp Powers, who wrote the screenplay based on his stage play, the actress came in with a solid vision of what she believed the movie should be.
“I had to get the job,” she now laughs. Not only did she get the job, but King became the first African American woman to ever have a film premiere at the Venice Film Festival, where it received critical praise. Because of the global pandemic, both Berry and King had to present their movies without the benefits of test screenings.
Summing that up, King adds. “We're trusting that the feedback that we're getting when audiences are seeing it, we're just living vicariously through the audience. So, TIFF at least to some of them, lucky few, are our first audiences who get to see the film.”