Now entering its landmark fifth year, the Toronto Black Film Festival (running from February 15th to the 19th at various city venues) finds itself more relevant than ever. Given the volatile state of race relations in the world at the moment – and many examples that show racial sensitivities regressing instead of progressing – this celebration of black cinema from around the world has become even more vital and indispensable. This year’s line-up of features, documentaries, shorts, and special events speaks to a larger discussion of what it means to be black in a challenging, sometimes openly depressing world.
The Toronto Black Film Festival brings stories of hardship, sacrifice, and perseverance, but also empowering history lessons, joyous celebrations, and a fair bit of good fun and entertainment. There’s something for everyone here, and the festival proudly showcases a vibrant black filmmaking community that often goes overlooked by the mainstream in favour of safer, more whitewashed fare with a lot more money behind it.
The festival kicks off at Isabel Bader Theatre on the 15th with the opening night presentation of Tell Them We Are Rising: The Story of Historically Black Colleges and Universities. Screening at Sundance earlier this year, Tell Them We Are Rising is the latest documentary from Stanley Nelson, who’s The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution is one of the best docs of the decade thus far.
Nelson traces the history of African-American controlled institutions of higher learning from the height of slavery – when blacks had to fight for their education, or, more likely than not, teach themselves – to the modern era, where such colleges and universities remain culturally and academically relevant. Rigorously researched and boasting insightful interviews with historians, scholars, teachers, and students, Tell Them We Are Rising traces not only the history of educational systems in America, but also how the controlling of education has remained a nefarious tactic by those in power to maintain a sense of status quo. Nelson does justice to those dedicated enough to fight and make sure that education was more than something to be used as a symbol of status and worth.