September 8, 2016 / 1:24 AM / 2 years ago

Race finds spotlight through true stories at Toronto Film Festival

LOS ANGELES/TORONTO (Reuters) - A slavery drama clouded by controversy, an African king fighting to be with a white woman and a young Barack Obama navigating college life are some of the true-life tales exploring race at the Toronto International Film Festival, against a backdrop of heightened racial tension.

Actor Nate Parker poses at the premiere of his new film "Non-Stop" in Los Angeles, California, U.S. February 24, 2014. REUTERS/Fred Prouser/File Photo

As the 10-day festival kicks off on Thursday, all eyes are on the Friday premiere of “The Birth of a Nation,” about preacher-slave Nat Turner, who led a rebellion in the antebellum South.

“Birth of a Nation,” which debuted at Sundance Film Festival in January to rave reviews and was hailed an Oscar front-runner, has stumbled in the past month as news emerged of the film’s star and writer-director-producer Nate Parker’s 2001 trial and acquittal on rape charges.

While the controversy around Parker has overshadowed “Birth of a Nation,” the film itself puts a spotlight on the harrowing brutality suffered by slaves.

The film comes amid heightened tensions in the United States with the Black Lives Matter movement protesting police brutality against members of the black community.

It also comes at a time where the film industry has come under fire for its lack of diversity after this year’s Oscars featured no acting nominees of color, sparking the #OscarsSoWhite hashtag.

“Filmmakers are attracted to controversy, they’re attracted to issues, debates of the day, and the racial debate is certainly one of the key ones,” said Piers Hardling, chief executive of the Toronto International Film Festival.

Aside from “Birth of a Nation,” there is “Barry,” the story of a young Barack Obama navigating racial and social issues when he attended Columbia University in New York in 1981.

“Hidden Figures” follows three black female mathematicians helping NASA during the 1960s space race, while “Loving” and “A United Kingdom” explore the real-life stories of two separate interracial couples fighting to be together.

Director Amma Asante’s “A United Kingdom” stars British actor David Oyelowo as Seretse Khama, the king of Botswana, who defied traditions and expectations in 1947 to marry a white English worker portrayed in the movie by Rosamund Pike.

“You can look back and say ‘yes, that’s 1947 and so much has changed,’ but I think for couples who are in interracial relationships, they may argue maybe not so much has changed,” Asante told Reuters.

“Politically, people have become very stimulated, very active, and I think when that happens, we as creators start to reflect the climate and the energy around us,” Asante said.

“Moonlight,” directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, follows the story of a young black man navigating his identity and sexuality, told through three chapters of his life.

While it is not exactly a true story, it is inspired by the playwright’s life, Jenkins said, and reflects a “very authentic experience.”

“In ‘Moonlight,’ what we’re doing is taking Tarell’s source material and adaptation and we’re trying to explore real life for everyday people, not necessarily these famous or iconic people,” Jenkins said.

Reporting by Piya Sinha-Roy; Editing by Steve Orlofsky

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