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Neil Parmar Headshot

Can Hollywood Push Movie Discussions Beyond Race?

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Even when asked, not all actors and directors at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF) are engaging with reporters on questions about red carpet designer wear or what their shots are at getting an Oscar nod. Some are delving into typically taboo subjects, including slavery, race and xenophobia.

And it's about time.

These are just some of the subject matters that have come to the forefront of discussions surrounding movies such as 12 Years a Slave, a based-on-fact story about a free man who gets sold into slavery, and Half of a Yellow Sun, a novel-turned-film about tribal violence during the Nigerian-Biafran War between 1967 and 1970. Yet some of the individuals who star in, or have directed, these movies are determined to push the conversation beyond yesterday's clichés.

Director Steve McQueen, for one, made it clear during a moderated panel about his film, 12 Years a Slave, that this wasn't simply another project intended to ignite or spread a discussion about -- wait for it -- race in America. And he made no apologies after being told that some audience members walked out of the film after particularly graphic scenes of torture against slaves.

"I wanted to make a film about slavery," McQueen said. He also noted, "And if that starts a conversation -- wonderful, excellent. I hope it goes beyond race. You're trying to narrow it down to race. Yes, race is involved, but it's not entirely about that."

Some of the film's actors jumped into the debate as well, including Alfre Woodard and Chiwetel Ejiofor, who said its story is "a gift from the past to open a discussion, not about race, particularly, but about human dignity and our freedoms and what we most require in the world. And the only way to really open that discussion is to see all sides of it."

Of course, some critics in the industry have drawn comparisons to other films with strong minority actors and asked whether there might be a possible fight over the same awards categories. In Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom, Idris Elba (of The Wire fame) tackles Nelson Mandela's autobiography. The story covers the time Mandela spent imprisoned in South Africa during the country's apartheid system that legislated racial segregation and screens for the final time at TIFF on Friday. The Butler, meanwhile, was released before TIFF and stars Forest Whitaker and Oprah Winfrey in a historical drama about a White House butler over the course of eight presidencies.

When I asked one friend and movie fanatic via Twitter about whether he thought discussions as well as awards show buzz would shift from The Butler to 12 Years a Slave, he responded, "I think as McQueen mentioned the film landscape is a space for compelling, powerful narratives on race & equality. I think both films are necessary to the burgeoning film conversation," wrote Prasanna Ranganathan.

Actors seem to agree that the pool can be much vaster. Thandie Newton, who previously won a BAFTA Film Award for Crash and is now starring alongside Ejiofor in Half of a Yellow Sun, says there's been a "backlog" of stories with ties to parts of Africa and some of the themes that are emerging from TIFF this year. "It's just that finally it's like, 'Oh the audience actually wants to see Africa. Oh, ok, then we'll finance them.' It's just that ridiculous, and there have been many of us pushing for these fantastic stories."

Newton, whose film has its final screening on Saturday, adds that Hollywood's obsession of late has been "all about prequels, sequels and halfquels, and God knows what... It's almost like all the stories have been told -- but they haven't. And there's a whole part of the globe that is rich with stories -- in a way the most essential stories of all that have just been waiting to be told from their perspective as well. Because that's the most important thing."