On Tuesday November 8, the TIFF Bell Lightbox commemorated the 76th anniversary of the racism experienced by Nova Scotia’s Viola Desmond. It was a gathering of prominent filmmakers in Toronto’s Black artist scene, which began with a reception on the main floor. As I walked into the TIFF building, there was a DJ, bar set-up, hors d’oeuvres, and of course schmoozing.
In opening statements by Jamaican-born Cameron Bailey, TIFF’s CEO, the theatre unveiled two golden seats, front row center for Viola Desmond and her sister, Wanda. The Toronto-based theatre also revealed that their largest cinema would officially be renamed1https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/nova-scotia/tiff-rename-cinema-viola-desmond-1.6644256 after the civil rights icon.
There was poetry by Nadine Williams (“Viola’s Ten”), and a panel conversation between Alison Duke, “Gaddy” Conteh George, Joan Jenkinson and Ella Cooper. The need for Black contributors in cinema was top of mind for everyone in attendance.
there is a sense of home, one that we can almost smell as it welcomes us.
The main event was a screening of When Morning Comes, the first feature film from Black Women in Film alum, Kelly Fyffe-Marshall2You may recognize this name from a previous Rungh Review also featuring Fyffe-Marshall: https://rungh.org/new-cartographies-power-to-the-young-people/. The 91-minute feature opens with distinct reggae sounds and Jamaican scenery. Immediately, there is a sense of home, one that we can almost smell as it welcomes us.
Jamal is the film's protagonist, a nine-year-old child who is being bullied at school, and is the son of a young single-mother who thinks he was suspended for fighting. Set in Kingston in 2001, while running errands with his mother, Jamal and Janisha are in a money transfer que, overhearing two fellow patrons discussing the problems between the Jamaican Labour Party (JLP) and the People's National Party (PNP). Needless to say, nothing gets solved. Janisha receives less money than she is expecting due to interest rates.
Not once is Jamal beaten, not once is Janisha portrayed as a stereotype.
juvenile relationships to mothers, fear, and home are key pillars to pay attention to in Fyffe-Marshall’s trajectory.
Eventually, the main tension is revealed, as Jamal overhears Janisha talking to granny on the phone and he learns that he is to be sent to Canada. Tears in his eyes, he runs into the jungle to visit his father's grave and spill his grievances. Jamal does not want to go, and believes he is being sent away as punishment. A sentiment that is recognizable for his young age. Such tenderness is evocative of Fyffe-Marshall’s earlier work, Haven. The themes of juvenile relationships to mothers, fear, and home are key pillars to pay attention to in Fyffe-Marshall’s trajectory.
After some key Jamaican iconography, such as the dancehall, the school uniforms, the motorbikes, dirt roads, and greenery, there is of course the sea. On a morning of fishing with his best friend and his friend’s father, Jamal is quoting Cool Runnings as he suddenly falls overboard. There is something significant about the water to Black people, diasporic people. There is a moment of anxiety as it appears that Jamal cannot swim. There is a danger looming in the water, although Jamaica is surrounded by it. There is a threat of the undercurrent itself sweeping you away, and of the ships the waves carry to Jamaica's shores.
knowing how to swim, float, and tread water is the difference between life and death.
Later in the film Jamal learns to float with the help of his crush. Such scenes seem heavily saturated with its heroes, such as the iconic Moonlight (2016) and multi-award-winning Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012). The relaxation of floating on water is a precious and radical experience that affords young Black people some hope that there is safety in this world, that someone has them. But swimming is another experience entirely: sometimes, knowing how to swim, float, and tread water is the difference between life and death. When Morning Comes pays beautiful homage to the care that Black children require as they learn to trust the waters that they are from, and the supports that keep air above their faces.
Near the middle of the film, it is revealed that the boy who had been bullying Jamal was killed by gunfire. Perhaps as a stylistic choice, it is not explained if Jamal’s father was also the victim of gun violence. For those of us in the audience whose families immigrated to “foreign” (namely Canada and America), there is cultural acceptance that the violence in Jamaica got too close to home, and that is why the generation before us left.
In a church setting, there is the familiar mourning of Black life that is gone too soon. Jamal is in the church, seemingly neutral, as he sits in the back. Inexplicably, the mother of the slain bully gets up and gives Jamal the gold chain that her son stole from him, a gift to Jamal from his late father. In the few short steps from her pew at the front of the church, the slain bully goes from being sanctified with the singing of “Amazing Grace” to being remembered as less than a saint. It seemed forced that a grieving mother would carry the necklace with her to her son’s wake. Perhaps this gesture was meant to represent Jamal and the bully as both victims of violence, or to demonstrate that Jamal and the mother both lost loved ones too soon. Whatever the intention, the gesture was distracting and landed as awkward symbolism more than realistic forthrightness. There was gospel of God protecting us, that we have nothing to fear, and Jamal leaves the church with a chain around his neck.
In the 16 days that the film spans, Jamal has come to terms with the fact that he is going to Canada and makes his peace. He learns more about Jamaica’s colours and why he should respect his hometown, a "land of wood and water." In these tranquil outdoor moments, Jamal is pensive. He eventually revisits his father’s grave and merely offers a "later, dad." Quietly, we get the sense that he is maturing before our very eyes. He is not hardening. He is deciding what kind of young man he will make himself to be.
Canada will absolutely not keep your son safe.
- You may recognize this name from a previous Rungh Review also featuring Fyffe-Marshall: https://rungh.org/new-cartographies-power-to-the-young-people/