One Night In Miami, The Water Man, And 12 Other Films I Can’t Wait To Watch

by Shaye Wyllie
tiff 2020 films to watch

So if you haven’t heard, ya’ girl is covering the Toronto International Film Festival this year! Which is a BIG deal! And after covering the American Black Film Festival last month, which I still have a ton of content to work on, I’m over the moon excited to be covering such a big festival this year. However, since I don’t have time to cover ALL of the films, here’s a list of 14 TIFF 2020 films I can’t wait to watch.

14 TIFF 2020 Films To Watch

Thursday, September 10

One Night in Miami

one night in miami tiff 2020

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Actor-director Regina King’s feature directorial debut, based on Kemp Powers’ play, is a fictionalized account of a 1964 meeting between Malcolm X, Muhammad Ali, Sam Cooke, and Jim Brown.

Fresh on the heels of her Academy Award for If Beale Street Could Talk and her acclaimed lead performance in the Watchmen television series, Regina King makes her feature directing debut with a drama that draws entertainment and activism, fame and principle, together on one fabled evening.

One Night in Miami imagines a night in February 1964, when real-life friends Cassius Clay, Jim Brown, Sam Cooke, and Malcolm X gather to celebrate Clay’s win over Sonny Liston, which made him the heavyweight champion of the world.

Triumphant and playful, Clay (Eli Goree) — who’d soon take the name Muhammad Ali — is looking to party, but both he and football star Brown know that’s only a temporary escape from the civil rights abuses that limit the lives of even celebrated Black Americans. In one potent early scene, Brown, played by Aldis Hodge (Clemency), visits the home of a white benefactor (Beau Bridges) and gets a harsh reminder of just where he stands.

When Clay and Brown are joined at a swank Miami motel by the sober-minded Malcolm X (Kingsley Ben-Adir) and the flashy pop star Cooke (Leslie Odom Jr.), the four men begin with banter but soon root down to the hard questions facing them.

Should successful Black entertainers speak out against racism? How best can Black celebrities serve the Black community? Are money and fame reward enough for humiliation? Working with screenwriter Kemp Powers to bring his original stage play to the screen, King and her actors attack these conversations with the urgency, depth, and humour the subject still demands today.

About the Director: Regina King was born in Los Angeles. She began her professional acting career at age 15. Her many acting credits include the features Boyz n the Hood (91), Poetic Justice (93), Friday (95), Jerry Maguire (96), How Stella Got Her Groove Back (98), Enemy of the State (98), Down to Earth (01), Ray (04), Year of the Dog (07), and If Beale Street Could Talk (18), for which she won both the Oscar and the Golden Globe for Best Supporting Actress; and the television series Southland (09–13), American Crime (15–17), for which she won two best actress Emmys, Seven Seconds (18), which also earned her a best actress Emmy, and Watchmen (19). One Night in Miami (20) is her feature directorial debut.

Night of the Kings

night of the kings tiff 2020

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

A young man incarcerated in a prison in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire must spend the whole night recounting a story if he hopes to survive, in Philippe Lacôte’s latest.

When a young man is incarcerated in Côte d’Ivoire’s largest prison, La MACA, he finds himself entering a world as dangerous and complex as the one he was navigating on the outside. While ostensibly overseen by a team of rundown guards, the prison is really ruled by Blackbeard (Steve Tientcheu, seen at TIFF last year in Les Misérables).

On his last legs, and seeing his power waning, Blackbeard makes one final play to keep his power over the prison: on the night of the red moon, he designates MACA’s newcomer “Roman.”

In a griot role that recalls Scheherazade in One Thousand and One Nights, Roman (Koné Bakary) must recount a story until the sun rises if he wants to keep his life and the prison from falling into chaos. Roman spins a story about Zama King, a notorious gang leader whose life spanned from ancient times to the fall of Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo, and was filled with intrigue and magic.

With his sophomore feature — his first, Run (2014), debuted at Cannes in Un Certain Regard — writer-director Philippe Lacôte refuses all genre expectations, flowing between a prison drama and visually stunning sequences that depict Roman’s elaborate tale. Further incorporating song and dance (and a cameo by icon Denis Lavant), Night of the Kings is a mesmerizing meditation on the art of storytelling and its role in survival.

About the Director: Philippe Lacôte grew up in Abidjan, Côte d’Ivoire. He has directed short films, documentaries, and series, including Somnambule (96), Cairo Hours (03), Chronicles of War in the Ivory Coast (08), the TIFF selection To Repel Ghosts (13), and Run (14). Night of the Kings (20) is his latest film.

In Sudden Darkness (short film)

in sudden darkness film

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Film critic and programmer Tayler Montague moves behind the camera to create this beautifully observed and deeply felt portrait of a Black family in the Bronx who find what they need in each other when the power goes out in the summer of 2003.

Director: Tayler Montague

David (short film)

david short film

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Will Ferrell, William Jackson Harper, and Fred Hechinger are all in top form in this hilarious comedy about a therapy session that goes off the rails. David marks the directorial debut of actor Zach Woods (Silicon ValleyThe Office).

Director: Zach Woods

Friday, September 11

Akilla’s Escape

akillas escape tiff 2020 poster

When a routine deal goes bad, a drug trader tries to set things right while unexpected circumstances force him to confront his traumatic origins.

During what is supposed to be a simple, routine handoff, 40-year-old drug trader Akilla Brown is suddenly caught in the middle of a violent robbery. Narrowly making it out alive, he captures one of the thieves, a teenaged Jamaican boy named Sheppard. Under the pressure of the criminals who hired him, Akilla must set things right and retrieve the stolen goods over the course of one arduous night.When Akilla discovers that Sheppard’s gang has ties to the Garrison Army, the same crime organization he fell into as a child, he has to confront his own traumatic origins and becomes compelled to help the boy survive — and possibly even make the escape that he never could. Set in parallel timelines in present-day Toronto and 1990s Brooklyn, Akilla’s Escape illustrates how the oppressive cycle of violence manifests in different generations and just how difficult it is to break.

Poet-musician-actor Saul Williams — who also collaborated with Massive Attack’s 3D on the soundtrack — brings a subtle gravity to the role of the film’s quietly tortured protagonist.

Returning to the landscape of the urban drama that helped make his name with Nurse.Fighter.Boy (2008), award-winning writer-director Charles Officer circumvents the sensationalism of the crime genre in this intelligent, distinctive, and sensitively rendered neo-noir–meets–coming-of-age story.

With Jamaican gang culture and the reach of its rampant international drug trade as a biting political backdrop, Akilla’s Escape is a wide-eyed look at social violence and the toll it takes on Black lives.

About the Director: Charles Officer was born in Toronto. He studied visual art at Cambridge University and communication design at OCAD University. His credits include Nurse.Fighter.Boy (08), which played the Festival, Mighty Jerome (12), Unarmed Verses (17), and Invisible Essence: The Little Prince (18). Akilla’s Escape (20) is his latest film.

Black Bodies (short film)

black bodies short film

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

A beautifully poetic and extremely timely account of what it means to be Black in 2020, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall’s powerful Black Bodies is essential viewing.

Director: Kelly Fyffe-Marshall

Saturday, September 12

The Archivists (short film)

tiff 2020 films to watch

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

After uncovering a degraded vinyl album in an abandoned home, three musicians attempt to reimagine one of its songs. Shot on stunning 16mm, Noah Reid, Bahia Watson, and Maxwell McCabe-Lokos star in this wistful dystopian sci-fi that is both hauntingly eerie and will get your foot tapping.

Director: Igor Drljaca

Rules for Werewolves (short film)

tiff 2020 films to watch

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

As a group of misfit teens ransack a mansion, one of them recounts how his past desperation changed him. Finn Wolfhard (Stranger Things) and Kelcey Mawema (To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before) star in this wickedly cool and mesmerizing thriller, marking a formidable short-film debut by director Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux.

Director: Jeremy Schaulin-Rioux

Sunday, September 13

The Kid Detective

By the age of 12, Abe Applebaum was a celebrated small-town sleuth, exposing minor indiscretions and making major headlines in his idyllic community. But at 32, nobody cares anymore. Abe (Adam Brody) continues to solve the same trivial mysteries between hangovers and bouts of self-pity.

His first ‘adult’ case comes from sixteen year-old Caroline (Sophie Nélisse), a naive former client whose scholarly boyfriend was found murdered. Together, he and Caroline embark on a rudderless investigation, at odds with a community that doesn’t take either of them seriously. Determined to prove he’s a real detective, Abe confronts a growing darkness at the centre of his decaying town, facing truths that will shatter what’s left of his boyish innocence.

Director: Evan Morgan

Monday, September 14

Concrete Cowboy (Idris Elba)

concrete cowboy tiff 2020 poster

While spending the summer in North Philadelphia, a troubled teen is caught between a life of crime and his estranged father’s vibrant urban-cowboy subculture.

Starring Idris Elba as a rough-hewn Philadelphia cowboy and Stranger Things’ Caleb McLaughlin as his estranged son, Concrete Cowboy is a pleasure from start to finish. This story of family reconciliation invites us into one of America’s most unique subcultures, a generations-old world of Black horse trainers on the streets of North Philly.

Cole (McLaughlin) is a troubled 15-year-old. After a fight gets him expelled from yet another Detroit school, his fed-up mother drives him 600 miles east and drops him on his father’s doorstep. Harp (Elba) is a taciturn loner, offering few explanations for why he’s been absent from his son’s life. He keeps his affection for horses, spending his days at the Fletcher Street stables down the block.

With no choice but to stay with his father, Cole agrees to grunt work at the stables, joining other local riders trying to keep the city from shutting the club down.

He soon reconnects with his childhood best friend, “Smush” (the charismatic Jharrel Jerome, from Moonlight and When They See Us). But Smush’s exciting life is fuelled by drug dealing. Cole can slip back into his friendship, or put in the hard, dirty stable work that will bring him closer to his father.

Featuring standout performances and drawing on the rich but oft-forgotten legacy of Black cowboys, director Ricky Staub’s adaptation of Greg Neri’s novel is a satisfying portrait of a young man finding purpose in community, the natural world, and family.

About the Director: Ricky Staub is an American director. He debuted as director and screenwriter with the short film The Cage (17). Concrete Cowboy (20), co-written with producer Dan Walser, is his feature directorial debut.

The Price of Cheap Rent 

the price of cheap rent

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

The search for affordable housing and pressures created by gentrification lead to a unique predicament for a young artist, in this sharp satirical comedy by Amina Sutton and Maya Tanaka.

Directors: Amina Sutton, Maya Tanaka

Tuesday, September 15

The Water Man

the water walker tiff 2020 poster
David Oyelowo makes his feature directorial debut with this mystical adventure that recalls the beloved family-friendly films of the 1980s.

Already a 2010s screen idol for his work in Ava DuVernay’s Selma, Mira Nair’s Queen of Katwe, and Amma Asante’s A United Kingdom, actor David Oyelowo makes his feature directorial debut with this imaginative, family-friendly adventure executive produced by Oprah Winfrey. The Water Man follows a sensitive young boy as he embarks on a mission to help his gravely ill mother by locating the mythic Water Man, who may carry the secret to everlasting life.

Gunner (Lonnie Chavis) and his mother (Rosario Dawson) share a special bond. She supports his daydreaming and artistic pursuits, while his frequently-on-the-road father, Amos (Oyelowo), with whom Gunner shares a strained relationship, has other ideas about where his son’s interests should lie.

Gunner and his dad attempt to smooth over their differences for the sake of the family, but when his mom’s sickness worsens, Gunner disappears into stacks of books on both science and the supernatural in search of possible cures. When Gunner and his rebellious friend Jo (Amiah Miller) go missing during their quest into the Water Man’s mysterious forest, Amos must immerse himself in his son’s world to find them and put his family back together.

Based on a script by Emma Needell that was featured on the 2015 Black List, The Water Man harkens back to the beloved childhood adventure films of the 1980s, combining family drama, mystical elements, and a courageous journey. As a filmmaker, Oyelowo masterfully inhabits a child’s view of the world as something full of both fantastic possibilities and impossible dangers. With the help of an incredible supporting cast that includes Alfred Molina and Maria Bello, the tale’s heart is in perfect harmony with its thrills and surprises.

About the Director: David Oyelowo was born in Oxford, England, and grew up in both London and Lagos. He graduated from LAMDA and got his start with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In addition to his many stage roles, he starred in the first three seasons of the BBC series Spooks (02–11). His filmography as an actor includes The Last King of Scotland (06), Middle of Nowhere (12), Lincoln (12), Jack Reacher (12), Nightingale (14), Selma (14), A Most Violent Year (14), Queen of Katwe (16), A United Kingdom (16), Gringo (18), and Come Away (20). The Water Man (20) is his feature directorial debut.

Unavailable, But Worth Mentioning

Bruised (Halle Berry)

bruised halle berry

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Halle Berry’s directorial debut follows a former MMA fighter struggling to regain custody of her son and restart her athletic career.

This film is screening as a work in progress.

Halle Berry makes her directorial debut while starring as a washed-up MMA fighter struggling for redemption as both an athlete and a mother. Jackie “Justice” (Berry) has been working multiple jobs and barely scraping by ever since losing an important match years ago. When her boyfriend, Desi (Adan Canto), manages to trick her into going to an underground fight, her passion for the sport is reignited. As Jackie prepares to go back to “the only thing she is good at,” the son she once abandoned is dropped off at her doorstep. Confronted by her past choices and traumas, Jackie will have to fight to reclaim the two most meaningful things she has walked away from: six-year-old Manny and an MMA title.

Bruised unfolds amidst a well-worn New Jersey backdrop and immerses viewers in the world of MMA fighting and title-match preparations. Training sessions and matches are shot with an exhilarating, kinetic intensity that charts Jackie’s gruelling journey to get back into peak shape in order to compete with younger opponents.

With this assured debut feature, Academy Award winner Berry crafts a textured portrait of a woman defined by her fight-or-flight reactions to the challenges life has thrown her way. Through her explosive performance, the character Jackie simultaneously radiates tightly coiled rage and heart-rending vulnerability. She is supported by an amazing cast, including Shamier Anderson (Torontonian and 2019 TIFF Rising Star alumnus) as the encouraging MMA league owner and Sheila Atim in a breakout performance as the enigmatic trainer Bobbi “Buddhakan” Berroa. A classic redemption story, Bruised regards all of its characters’ flaws with great empathy while building to a rousing, fist-pumping finale.

About the Director: Halle Berry was born in Cleveland and raised in its inner suburb of Oakwood, Ohio. She made her feature-film debut in Spike Lee’s Jungle Fever (91) and went on to star in many films, including Losing Isaiah (95), B.A.P.S (97), Bulworth (98), the X-Men series (00, 03, 06, 14), Gothika (03), Catwoman (04), Things We Lost in the Fire (07), Frankie & Alice (10), and the TIFF selections Cloud Atlas (12) and Kings (17). She won the Academy Award for Best Actress for Monster’s Ball (01). Bruised (20) is her feature directorial debut.

David Byrne’s American Utopia (Spike Lee)

American Utopia

Photo Credit: Courtesy of TIFF

Spike Lee documents the former Talking Heads frontman’s brilliant, timely 2019 Broadway show, based on his recent album and tour of the same name.

Deeply thoughtful and wildly exuberant, David Byrne’s theatrical concert American Utopia lit up Broadway last year with Byrne’s trademark mix of rhythm and ideas. Working with a vibrant new band and dancers, the former Talking Heads frontman turned his music into an antidote to America’s current divisions. Spike Lee’s latest joint brings all this joyous stagecraft to the screen in a vital call to connect with one another, to protest injustice, and, above all, to celebrate life.

The cerebral first song, “Here,” from Byrne’s 2018 American Utopia album, opens in a mood of cool reflection, but that soon builds as Byrne is joined on stage by vocalist-dancer Tendayi Kuumba and dancer-vocalist Chris Giarmo, with their uncanny mix of artful gesture and dance-floor funk. Then, on come nine more musicians, including percussion masters from the US, Brazil, France — even Toronto’s own Jacquelene Acevedo. “Most of us are immigrants,” Byrne says at one point, “and we couldn’t do it without them.” They launch into “Everybody’s Coming to My House.”

The classics are all here, too, but transformed — the aching beauty of “This Must Be The Place”; “Once in a Lifetime” now a euphoric anthem. In a film of countless highlights, Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monáe’s “Hell You Talmbout” is a showstopper, with the band chanting out the names of Black Americans killed by police. Lee’s powerful visuals bring it right up to the present.

Calling on all of us to think, connect, engage, and dance, David Byrne’s American Utopia unites the brain and the backside, which may be exactly what we need right now.

About the Director: Spike Lee was born in Atlanta and raised in Brooklyn. His debut feature, She’s Gotta Have It (86), won the Prix de la Jeunesse at Cannes. His many films include the features School Daze (88), Do the Right Thing (89), Jungle Fever (91), Malcolm X (92), Clockers (95), Bamboozled (00), 25th Hour (02), Inside Man (06), Miracle at St. Anna (08), Chi-Raq (15), BlacKkKlansman (18), and Da 5 Bloods (20), and the documentaries 4 Little Girls (97) and When the Levees Broke: A Requiem in Four Acts (06). David Byrne’s American Utopia (20) is his latest work.

So, which TIFF 2020 films are you excited to watch?

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