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Day One of the TIFF Industry Conference

Day one of the TIFF Industry Conference kicked off with Master Class featuring Viola Davis and her husband, Julius Tennon speaking on their production company and the journey of normalizing Black stories in a system not designed for it. The five-day conference is digitally being held using several virtual platforms to include meetups, masterclasses, and panels and also access to some of the movie content.

It was after The Help that Viola wanted to see better roles outside of the industry. Partnering up with  Tennon to found their company, JuVee Productions, to focus on their mission of expanding more diverse stories. Both were stage actors and spoke of their shared love of August Wilson, Davis perhaps is best known for her success with a Tony and Oscar win for Fences.

“With white people, you have a diverse range of stories and there is a place for all of them, Davis said. “I don’t think all our stories have to be in a certain format, certain genre. If you have a voice, a taste, the most courageous thing you can do is go for it. Don’t think about marketability before you put it out into the world.”

Both Tennon and Davis shared that there is no blueprint to success but hard work and perseverance with Tennon adding that listening is critical.

“We are fighting a whole system that has been used to seeing us in a certain way. We have not usually been humanized,” Davis said. “We are not excluding our White counterparts but the characters of color aren’t tropes or stereotypes.”

Later in her talk, she revisited the notion that the goal is autonomy for those usually on the periphery and no longer creating a White-centric narrative. The hope is that destigmatizing the Black experience and allowing all types of stories leads to the ability to have flawed characters, nodding to some examples of White flawed hero journeys.

“I reject the notion that I have to be an extreme positive to be relevant,” Davis said. “It is the flaws that make people lean in.”

The couple spoke about several upcoming projects including Giving Voice which premiered at Sundance and was picked up by Netflix. Davis reflected on the generational change that she has seen with mention of Gloria Foster once speaking to her about how her generation only had one Black actor with an agent: Sidney Poitier. Davis acknowledged that her generation had three television channels but that the newest generation has a multitude of platforms to allow for more opportunities. But pointed out her own journey as a working actor, not recognizable internationally until her late 40s gave her an appreciation of the real statistics of actors in the industry with a 95% unemployment rate and 0.04% fame.

“Now there are a plethora of new artists that are going to honor that, but the nature of being an artist is there’s always going to be a high unemployment rate, so what are we going to do with this time? So you’ve had a successful movie or show, how do you keep it going?” Davis asked.

Davis ended with a question posed to the industry audience. “Stories. That is the foundation of what we do as artists. My huge question is – what do you want to see?”

Learn more about the Juvee Productions here.

Other talks on day one included The Writer’s Room dialogue, a microsession on Art House to Your House, Narrative sovereignty, Producers, and New UK Talent at Fall 2020 Festivals.

– Melanie Addington (@MelAddington)

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Melanie Addington is the Executive Director of Tallgrass Film Association as of 2021. She has worked in the film festival world since 2006, first as a volunteer, and then eventually becoming the Oxford Film Festival Executive Director in August 2015. She used to be a reporter for the Oxford Eagle (a community newspaper) and then Pizza Magazine Quarterly (a global trade magazine). She still loves pizza. And she still writes for Hammer to Nail and Film Festival Today about her other great love: movies. She is from Southern California originally but lived in the South for 20 years. She now resides in Wichita, KS, and has one son.

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