Movies, at least the ones Hollywood has produced for over a century, frequently leave a lot of people out of the frame.
But with the industry under pressure to tell more diverse stories, several of the movies that are premiering and screening at this year’s Toronto International Film Festival are highlighting protagonists who are Black, queer, indigenous or members of other underrepresented groups. In the process, many of these films deal with pieces of forgotten history (“The Woman King” with its true story of a all-female warrior unit protecting a West African kingdom), a fading past (“My Policeman,” a look at a closeted homosexual forced into a marriage of convenience) and a rapidly changing present (“Bros,” a rom-com featuring an entirely LGBTQ cast).
Often, these films are deeply personal efforts. Take “The Inspection,” one of the festival’s opening night films and the story of a gay man who enlists in the army during the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” era. Director Elegance Bratton drew on his own service to craft the picture and sees it as an important corrective.
“For most of our country’s history, we were forced to be silent, to suffer in silence,” Bratton told Variety. “This film is 100% autobiographical, when it comes to fears, desires and motivations, but some of the situations are composite situations that I heard in podcasts, YouTube videos, [from] friends of mine who served who had really a horrible outcome because they got dishonorably discharged from being gay. So not only do I get tell their story, but I get to say a gay man served with honor, and was accepted in the military with honor. I know a lot of people are going to be lifted by that. So that fills me with a lot of joy.”
And there are plenty of other films premiering this week and next that will give other groups a chance to see themselves reflected on screen. There’s “Joyland,” the story of a Pakistani family grappling with their son’s decision to perform with a trans dancer; V.T. Nayani’s “This Place,” a queer love story involving two women, one an Iranian and Mohawk and the other Tamil woman; and Sanaa Lathan’s debut feature, “On the Come Up,” a look at high schoolers navigating the world of battle rap that features a diverse cast.
On the face of it, “Bros” appears to be a conventionally made “meet cute” confection. But in many respects it represents a radical step forward. It is the first major studio theatrical release that is co-written and stars an openly gay man in Billy Eichner, and the story it chooses to tell has little to do with the AIDS crisis or homophobia. Instead it stands as a celebration of sexuality.
“A lot of the LGBTQ content we’ve gotten in film, especially the films that get a lot of attention and win awards, has been about the struggle of being LGBTQ, the tragedy of it,” says Eichner. “All of those stories are very important to tell, and that’s part of our history. But it’s often been the only stories we’ve gotten. I’m just sitting there being like, ‘Can’t we be funny in a major motion picture? What about what’s fun about our lives and exciting and uplifting and sexy?’ We need more LGBTQ movies like that, because it’s not torture.”
Despite the progress, Hollywood still has a lot of ground to make up. In 2020 (for the fourth year in a row), there were zero transgender or non-binary characters in major studio movies, according to GLAAD’s most recent report. And while the number of films with LGBTQ characters has increased in 2020, up 22.7% from 2019’s 18.6%, that boost comes with a major caveat. The COVID-19 pandemic dramatically reduced the volume of movies that played in theaters.
There’s also been slow growth in behind-the-camera roles for people of color, particularly women of color, according to UCLA’s latest Hollywood Diversity Report, despite how significantly people of color drive box office revenue. Among the top 252 English-language movies released in 2021, only 21.8% were directed by women and 30.2% were directors of color. There’s still room for optimism: In 2021, 43.1% of actors in the top 252 movies came from BIPOC backgrounds. That’s a substantial gain from a decade ago in 2011 when representation stood at 20.7%.
Giving people from underrepresented backgrounds the opportunity to tell their own stories is necessary to subvert stereotypes and inauthentic tropes, says Aitch Alberto, a transgender filmmaker who directed “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe.” The coming-of-age story, which premiered on Friday, is based on Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s best-selling novel about two Latino LGBTQ youths in El Paso, Texas.
“I wanted to make a classic American film that was relatable to not only us as Latinos, but everyone. And one that subverted the expectation and the tropes we’ve seen before, which are often violent or lack authenticity to my experience,” she says. “I don’t come from a super accepting family, but there was always a lot of love. I really hope that translates to audiences.”
Lin-Manuel Miranda, a producer on “Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe,” says, “So much of Latino representation in film is so machista or rooted in what people see on the 11 o’clock news, which is not our day-to-day realities.”
TIFF also provided a chance to take stock of how far the industry has come and the exciting creative avenues that can be opened up when the industry bankrolls more stories from underrepresented artists.
During an emotional question and answer session following the world premiere of “The Woman King,” the film’s star Viola Davis gave a rousing call to arms.
“This film is for the risk-takers,” she said. “This film is for the people who maybe even are the naysayers — who never believed that a Black woman, especially dark-skinned women, can lead a global box office. This film is for the Black women who are out there on the periphery, a conduit, a vehicle to shine a beautiful and glorious light. I’m really proud to be a part of that.”
Angelique Jackson contributed to this report.