'American Fiction' wins top prize at Toronto film fest
"American Fiction" -- a satire about race, media and how white audiences consume Black culture -- sealed its place as an early Oscars frontrunner by winning the coveted top prize Sunday at the Toronto International Film Festival.
The film, the debut feature from Cord Jefferson, tells the story of Thelonious 'Monk' Ellison (Jeffrey Wright), an author and university professor who is told by his publishers that his writing isn't "Black enough."
So he adopts a pseudonym and writes a novel using what he believes to be every staid idea about being African American. Of course, the book is a monster hit, producers start circling and Ellison must confront the consequences of his actions.
Adapted from Percival Everett's novel "Erasure," the movie from the 41-year-old Jefferson -- an Emmy-winning writer who has worked on shows like "Succession" and "Watchmen" -- looks at what it means to be authentic in American culture.
"When I made the film, I wasn't yet thinking about how it would feel when it went out into the world," Jefferson said in a statement read by festival CEO Cameron Bailey at Sunday's awards ceremony.
"The film is now in your hands and I am so grateful that it was embraced in this way. I share this with our brilliant cast led by Jeffrey Wright."
The film, which had its world premiere in Toronto, is scheduled for wide release in North America in November.
Voted for by audiences, the People's Choice Award at North America's biggest film festival has become something of an early Oscars bellwether, predicting eventual Academy Award best picture winners such as "Nomadland" and "Green Book."
"12 Years a Slave," "The King's Speech" and "Slumdog Millionaire" also began their journeys to Oscars best picture glory with the Toronto prize.
The first runner-up prize on Sunday went to Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers," a 1970s-era dramedy set at a New England prep school, and second runner-up honors went to Japanese animation master Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron."
TIFF, which ran from September 7 until Sunday, is known for attracting both A-list stars and a large crowd of cinephiles eager to catch movies before the general public.
Despite the Hollywood actors' and writers' strikes, a fair number of bold-faced names promoted their work in Canada's biggest city, thanks to interim agreements reached with the unions or because they worked as director or producer.
Some films screening in Toronto were not subject to the strikes because they were independently or internationally produced.
Sean Penn, Sylvester Stallone, Taika Waititi, Nicolas Cage, Patricia Arquette, Salma Hayek Pinault, Jessica Chastain, Ethan Hawke, Dakota Johnson and Elliot Page all appeared on the TIFF red carpet.
Music stars Lil Nas X and Paul Simon also came to Toronto to promote new documentaries about their careers.