Spike Lee launches pandemic-hit Toronto festival with online premiere

Andrew MARSZAL, with Michel COMTE in Ottawa
·3-min read
Director Spike Lee, seen here in New York City in February 2020, paid tribute to black victims of police violence with his latest movie at the Toronto film festival

Spike Lee launches pandemic-hit Toronto festival with online premiere

Director Spike Lee, seen here in New York City in February 2020, paid tribute to black victims of police violence with his latest movie at the Toronto film festival

Spike Lee kicked off a unique Toronto film festival Thursday with a tribute to black victims of police violence, as his latest movie premiered online and at drive-in screenings due to coronavirus.

With a pandemic and a closed Canadian border forcing Hollywood stars and media to remain home, North America's biggest film festival has scrambled to find socially-distanced ways to present this year's line-up.

Even directors have stayed away, meaning that "David Byrne's American Utopia" -- Lee's movie version of the Talking Heads musician's Broadway concert -- officially opened the festival by streaming on the web.

The unusual format did not dampen reviews.

Deadline Hollywood said the film "isn't just a concert doc, but also a life-affirming, euphoria-producing, soul-energizing sing-along protest film that's asking us to rise up against our own complacency."

In the film, which meshes themes of community and battling injustice, Lee projects images of Eric Garner, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd -- all African Americans killed by police -- over a rousing protest song.

The anthem features a call-and-response chant of "Say his name" for each black victim -- a theme veteran filmmaker Lee has covered extensively over his long career.

"It feels like this year in particular, what he's been saying for decades is resonating with a lot more people," festival co-head Cameron Bailey told AFP.

"It does feel like it is exactly the film for the moment... it gives both David and Spike the opportunity to really focus the audience's attention on issues of anti-black racism, of the Black Lives Matter movement," he added.

- 'Screaming' -

The Toronto International Film Festival typically draws half a million attendees to its celebrity-studded red carpets and world premieres, which include Oscars hopefuls and obscure arthouse flicks hoping to find distributors.

This year due to Covid-19, only movie lovers who are already based in town can attend physical screenings at a dramatically pared-down festival boasting just 50 feature films on show -- compared with a typical 300-odd.

On Thursday, small crowds gathered at drive-ins, a lakeside open-air screen, and a handful of limited-capacity indoor theaters to watch Lee's movie, as well as French debut feature "Spring Blossom" by Suzanne Lindon.

In a separate online festival talk, Oscar-winning actress Viola Davis confronted racism and typecasting in Hollywood, telling audiences that films with black stars "don't always have to be a 'Boyz n the Hood'."

Her comments come days after the Academy changed best picture Oscar rules to require minimum levels of diversity.

Davis noted that while in the 1960s "only one black actor had an agent, that was Sidney Poitier," today's trailblazers have benefited from diverse roles on streaming platforms and a cultural zeitgeist "screaming and absolutely demanding" more representation. 

- 'Really mean microbes' -

In one of several films that premiered online to Canadian web users, legendary director Werner Herzog -- fresh from his on-screen role in Star Wars series "The Mandalorian" -- explores the real cosmos in meteorite documentary "Fireball: Visitors from Darker Worlds."

Werner told AFP his investigation led him to conclude alien life is likely -- "some (meteorites) carry sugar, a building block of life, so the probability is good that there's something out there" -- but that fears of a deadly strike were overstated.

"Maybe in two million years we'll be hit by something big... let's face it, so what?" he added, citing threats of nuclear war, a huge volcanic eruption or "some really mean microbes."

With the current pandemic shutting down other festivals including Cannes and Telluride, movie icons including Martin Scorsese, Anthony Hopkins, Nicole Kidman and Kate Winslet have been virtually called in to boost Toronto with online talks and galas, running through to September 20.

"We still wanted to do a festival," said Bailey. "It's important for our audience, and I think we just all need some inspiration that art can provide."

amz/st