TORONTO — Living partly in the Ugandan capital of Kampala where she runs a film school, the Indian-born filmmaker Mira Nair is regularly surrounded by lives she rarely sees reflected back by the movies.
“The dignity of everyday life — the beauty of it, the attitude of it — is what I live around,” says Nair. “And it is never on screen and it is certainly never associated with Africa. If we see Africa at all, it is always used as a backdrop: a big blob of a continent rather than a specific street or a country or a place.”
Nair premiered her upcoming Disney film “Queen of Katwe,” about a chess prodigy who rose from the slums of Uganda, at the Toronto International Film Festival over the weekend. But she was far from the only filmmaker at the festival focused on capturing lives and faces that have had to fight for their place on the big screen.
A rich crop of racially diverse films is poised to disrupt two straight years of overwhelmingly white Academy Awards. But there’s a larger groundswell at work.
“The creators have taken it upon themselves to create these stories,” says Barry Jenkins, whose coming-of-age tale “Moonlight” has been one of the most acclaimed films of the festival. “The point is all these men and women of color and different sexualities are now saying: ‘I’m tired of this. There’s no reason I should be voiceless. I’m going to take the incentive to tell these stories.'”
Jenkins’ “Moonlight,” a lyrical portrait of a gay black kid growing up poor in Miami, like most of the other films due this fall, was conceived long before the Oscar diversity crisis.
The same is true for Nate Parker’s “The Birth of a Nation,” about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, which was hailed as the antidote Hollywood needed. Yet the film arrived at Toronto overshadowed by a rape case from Parker’s past and its prospects are very much in question.
But there are many other films rushing forward, propelled by an urgency to tell stories about people that have seldom felt Hollywood’s lens on them.
Theodore Melfi’s “Hidden Figures,” which is due out in early January but is widely expected to get an awards push, is about a trio of African-American mathematicians whose work was integral to NASA in the early 1960s. The film, crowd-pleasing and comical, was previewed in Toronto. It stars Octavia Spencer, Taraji P. Henson and Janelle Monae, all of whom were visibly moved at an event for the movie.
“People come up to me and they’re like, ‘Oh, Oscars!’ Everybody wants to put on that pressure,” said Henson. “I don’t accept that pressure. I’ll let you all say it. But what I was most concerned about was if (the NASA mathematician Katherine Johnson) would be proud, because she’s still alive.”
“Loving,” directed by Jeff Nichols, stars Ruth Negga and Joel Edgerton as Mildred and Richard Loving, whose interracial marriage got them exiled from Virginia and eventually led to the Supreme Court’s landmark 1967 ruling Loving v. Virginia. Having already premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, “Loving” — a patiently told tale of steadfast love — is very much on a potential awards trajectory.
But it isn’t the only interracial marriage movie at Toronto. David Oyelowo, who also stars in “Queen of Katwe,” debuted Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom,” in which Oyelowo plays the Botswana royal Seretse Khama. His marriage to Ruth Williams (Rosamund Pike) sparked outrage both in the U.K. and his African tribe.
“It’s very exciting and partly because so many of these films have been made by people of color. That’s a shift,” said Oyelowo. “A few years ago that had people of color in central roles but they were still being made predominantly by white men.”
Oyelowo’s lack of a nomination for his performance as Martin Luther King Jr. in 2014’s “Selma” was a flashpoint in the backlash against the Oscars. Earlier this year, partly to combat what some called the Academy of Motion Pictures’ institutional biases, Academy president Cheryl Boone Isaacs led changes to the group’s bylaws intended to diversify the membership.
“The thing I’m encouraged by is we are no longer just talking about diversity, we’re doing diversity,” said Oyelowo. “I really commend the Academy for the changes that are being instituted. I think we all agree the Academy is not the reason for a lack of diversity or inclusion in film, but it has been in the past another outward show of some of the problems from a representation point of view in the industry.”
This year’s nominees will, of course, be keenly watched. Will the results be any different?
Antoine Fuqua, who directed Denzel Washington’s Oscar-winning performance in “Training Day” says there are more important things to worry about. He premiered his “The Magnificent Seven” as the opening film at Toronto. The film boasts a diverse cast Fuqua intended as an updating of the historically homogenous Western.
“Focus on your work. Don’t whine about whether that film didn’t work out, or people didn’t accept you or nominate you for that movie,” said Fuqua. “You should already be on to your next one. You have to go: ‘Well, OK, they didn’t acknowledge me on that. Maybe it was a color thing. Maybe it wasn’t.'”
“The Academy Awards is one night,” he added. “But you’ve got the rest of the year to focus on your work. What are you going to do next?”
Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: http://twitter.com/jakecoyleAP