Photo: Nicole Rivelli / Universal Pictures
The chaos of festival schedules sometimes creates beautiful rhymes, and never was that more evident than my first night at the 2022 Toronto International Film Festival, which saw the back-to-back premieres of Gina Prince-Bythewood’s The Woman King and Nicholas Stoller’s Bros. Both are big Hollywood movies about people who don’t usually get to be at the center of big Hollywood movies, and both are, in their own ways, about their very status as mold-breakers. The Woman King is a historical epic set in 19th-century West Africa, starring Viola Davis as the leader of an elite all-female military squad in the Kingdom of Dahomey. Bros, as you might have heard, is a rom-com vehicle for Billy Eichner, the first openly gay man to star in and co-write a studio film. (The cast, with one notable exception, is entirely LGBTQ as well.)
The Toronto crowds at each screening showed up ready to be pleased, and for the films ‘combined four-hour runtime, they might as well have been eating out of the filmmakers’ hands. When Davis and Eichner came out before their respective premieres to speak on their struggles to get to a place in the industry where they could headline films like these, the raucous reception they were met with set the tone for the entire night. This was not the pious applause you sometimes get at artier festival movies; this was a party. As Eichner exhorted during the pre-show standing ovation for Bros, “Keep it going! I want a longer ovation than The Whale! “
Of the pair, The Woman King wears its representational burden more lightly. I’ve heard other critics compare it to a film from the VHS era, which they mean as a compliment. It’s a vintage swords-and-sandals flick with the Prince-Bythewood touch, full of tiny beats and details that give it life. The film has no anxieties about what it sets out to do. You are coming to The Woman King to see an army of badass Black women led by a 56-year-old Oscar winner with the glistening delts of an ’80s action star, and Prince-Bythewood and Davis are more than happy to deliver.
Bros, meanwhile, is half at war with itself, periodically stopping in its tracks to comment on its own trailblazing nature, then stopping again to apologize for not being more so. (Eichner’s character has a podcast called The 11th Brick at Stonewall“Because the first brick was probably thrown by a butch lesbian or a trans woman of color, but the 11th brick was thrown by a white cis gay.”) of those slings and arrows were in the room at the Princess of Wales Theater, where each awkward sex scene brought down the house, and each of Eichner’s monologues received enough effusive clapter to fill an entire season of The Daily Show. Eichner has a gift for pop-culture punchlines, and none of them did anything less than kill, with jokes about Renée Zellweger and Dear Evan Hansenand a cameo from a ’90s sitcom star, spurring gut-busting cackles that drowned out subsequent dialogue.
The love-fest continued during the post-screening Q&A session, where Eichner’s co-stars – most of whom are less white, less cis, or just less muscular than he is – hailed Bros as a step forward for queer representation onscreen. “I actually got to watch the world laugh with us, and not at us, because this film was produced by us, ”said Ts Madison, the Black trans social-media star who plays Eichner’s character’s co-worker. When someone in the audience asked what they hoped young people took away from Bros, comedian Guy Branum was lightning-quick: “That poppers help with anal sex!” Someone else begged for a sequel, but Eichner demurred, saying there was no way in hell his character di lui would end up with a baby.
Only at the very end did the anticipated criticism finally arrive. With the conversation winding down and everyone ready to head to the after-party, there was time for one final question. It came from a female voice, high in the rafters: Why, despite all this talk of representation, did the film star two white men? (Eichner’s love interest is played by Hallmark hunk Luke Macfarlane.) Having perhaps apologized enough already, Eichner didn’t feel the need to do so again, and it was left to Madison to fill the space. A movie like this was a way of getting her foot di lei in the door, she said, and if there was a sequel to Broswell, maybe it would star her.
Then she stood up, shook her ass, and order was restored.