Founder of black film festivals says Canada lacks roles for people of colour

TORONTO - While the Canadian Screen Awards tout a diverse slate of 2016 nominees, there's still a dearth of roles for people of colour in this country, says the founder of the Montreal International Black Film Festival and the Toronto Black Film Festival.

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"In the U.S.A., you do have those roles for black people or for African-American people, however you want to call them," says Haitian native Fabienne Colas, pointing to recent films including "Selma" and "Creed."

"Those roles exist, those opportunities are there, but they're not being recognized - versus in Canada, in a year when you will not have 'The Book of Negroes,' who are they going to nominate in the Canadian Screen Awards?

"That means we don't have those roles.... They don't really exist."

"The Book of Negroes" miniseries has 11 CSA nominations, including acting nods for Lyriq Bent, Aunjanue Ellis and Shailyn Pierre-Dixon.

Those nominations and a few others have some Canadian performers praising the CSAs as being more inclusive than the Oscars in the U.S., where two straight years of all-white acting nominees have prompted backlash and academy changes.

Colas, an actor-director-producer, notes it's an exceptional year at the CSAs.

"What's going to happen next year? What's going to happen after that?" she says.

"If the industry does not continue to make films with people of colour in the lead roles, well, at a certain point in time in Canada ... we won't have any persons of colour to give this nomination to."

She says one solution is to ensure a diverse makeup of committee or jury members at institutions that give grants to filmmakers.

"Unless there's a really relevant reason for you to bring a film that is an all-white cast - because it's historical - if you're doing a film in 2016 here in Toronto or in Quebec or in Montreal, it is ridiculous to consider that all characters should be white in Canada today," says Colas.

The Toronto Black Film Festival runs Wednesday through Sunday with 44 titles from 20 countries. Nine of the titles come from Canada.

Clement Virgo, who directed and co-wrote "The Book of Negroes," will be at the fest on Sunday for a Q&A.

Oscar-nominated actress Alfre Woodard will be at the fest on Saturday to receive the inaugural career achievement award. She'll also be at a Q&A for her film "Knucklehead."

Such festivals are still needed, says Woodard, who stars in "Knucklehead" as an abusive mother to an adult son (Gbenga Akinnagbe) with mental health issues.

"If people did not put these festivals on and nurture them over the years and build that kind of relationship with the public, we would never be able to see the brilliant films and the films that you want to argue about, the films that inspire you, freak you out," says Woodard.

That's the very reason Colas founded her festivals, starting with the Montreal one (formerly the Montreal Haitian Film Festival) 12 years ago.

A native of Haiti, she went to Montreal with a copy of her acclaimed film "Barikad," but no festival would screen it. She found that "ridiculous" considering "the Haitian community was and is still the largest black community in Montreal, in Quebec."

Colas then created a Toronto version because it's "the most diverse city in Canada."

"It's all about helping one another to understand one another better," says Colas. "It's all about giving everybody a voice, because when we listen to each other, when we understand, when we get to know each other and we understand each other better and then we get to love each other more.

"We spread the love, there's less fear and then we can relate to everybody's stories."


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