Cord Jefferson's "American Fiction," a biting satire starring Jeffrey Wright as a disillusioned academic, has won the People's Choice Award at the Toronto International Film Festival, a much-watched bellwether in the Oscar race.
"American Fiction" is the directorial debut of Jefferson, the veteran TV writer of "Watchmen" and "Succession," and an adaptation of Percival Everett's 2001 novel "Erasure." The film, about an author who resents that the literary industry is only interested in "Black books" that cater to the stereotypes of white audiences, emerged as a breakout hit at TIFF.
Toronto's audience award winner, voted on by festival attendees, has historically nearly always signified a best-picture contender at the Academy Awards. Since 2012, every People's Choice winner at TIFF has gone on to score a best-picture nod. In 2018, when "Green Book" won, it announced the film as a surprise awards contender. (Peter Farrelly's film went on to win best picture at the Oscars.) Last year, Steven Spielberg's "The Fabelmans" won Toronto's top prize.
First runner-up went to Alexander Payne's "The Holdovers," starring Paul Giamatti as a curmudgeonly boarding school teacher tasked with staying with a handful of students over Christmas break in the 1970s. Second runner-up was Hayao Miyazaki's "The Boy and the Heron," the long-awaited latest Studio Ghibli film from the Japanese anime master.
"American Fiction," which MGM will release in theaters Nov. 3, co-stars Sterling K. Brown, Issa Rae and Tracee Ellis Ross. In an interview, Jefferson said he immediately connected with Everett's book.
"I was having the exact same conversations with Black colleagues in both professions: Why are we always writing about misery and trauma and violence and pain inflicted on Blacks?" said Jefferson. "Why is this what people expect from us? Why is this the only thing we have to offer to culture?"
The Toronto International Film Festival, which wraps Sunday, was diminished this year due to the ongoing actors and writers strikes. Red-carpet premieres were mostly without movie stars, detracting from some of the buzz that the largest film festival in North American typically generates. It followed a similarly strike-affected Venice Film Festival, where the festival's top prize, the Golden Lion, went to Yorgos Lanthimos' "Poor Things." (That film skipped TIFF.)
The People's Choice winner for documentary went to Robert McCallum's "Mr. Dressup: The Magic of Make-Believe" and the midnight madness award went to Larry Charles' "Dicks: The Musical." The festival's juried competition awards were given to Tarsem Singh Dhandwar's "Dear Jassi," winner of the Platform section, and Meredith Hama-Brown's "Seagrass," which took the FIPRESCI award from international critics.