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#TBFF2023: Filmmaker Jennifer Holness honoured at opening night premiere of “Lovely Jackson”

Canadian film and TV director Jennifer Holness was given a tribute award at the opening night celebrations. Meanwhile, Rickey Jackson and Matt Weldeck's film, "Lovely Jackson," made its Ontario premiere at the Toronto Black Film Festival.

#TBFF2023: Filmmaker Jennifer Holness honoured at opening night premiere of “Lovely Jackson”
Fabienne Colas, left, founder of the Toronto Black Film Festival and the Fabienne Colas Foundation, poses with filmmaker Jennifer Holness, an executive board member with Canadian Media Producers Association honoured with a tribute award at the 11th annual film festival's opening night ceremony. JORDAN MAXWELL SCREENSHOT

Live at the Isabel Bader Theatre, the Toronto Black Film Festival kicked off in front of a packed house of more than 100 dignitaries, film professionals, and fans Feb. 15.

Canadian film and TV director Jennifer Holness was given a tribute award at the opening night ceremony. She was the first Black woman to win a Canadian Screen Award (CSA) for best writing and is known for paving the way for minority women entrepreneurs in film.

“It has been a long road. We live in a country that, while open on some levels, the media industry has not been as welcoming, so making work for the last couple of decades has been a challenge but one at which we’ve succeeded — winning 23 awards and being nominated for another 65. The Toronto Black Film Festival is a really special place, and I’m very excited,” Holness told Black Dollar Magazine.

Prior, she was named 2021 Indiescreen Producer of the Year and a 2022 WIFT Creative Excellence Award winner. Her recent feature documentary, “Subjects of Desire,” has won numerous festival awards and was a 2021 TIFF Top 10 film. Additionally, her TV series include “Shoot The Messenger and Guns,” with the latter winning five CSAs and garnering a prestigious Rose d’Or nomination.

Jennifer Holness, co-founder of production company Hungry Eyes Film and Television and chair of the Black Screen Office, addresses an audience for the opening of the Toronto Black Film Festival at the Isabel Bader Theatre. She received a tribute award to honour her storied career in the Canadian media industry. GINNY MONACO PHOTO

But perhaps one of her most important shows is “BLK: An Origin Story” — a four-part documentary series that studies chapters of Canadian Black history across the country. It was a concept she produced similarly in southern Ontario more than 20 years ago, but the movie wasn't well received.

Two decades later, her production company, Hungry Eyes Film and Television, which she co-founded with husband Sudz Sutherland, was asked to make the doc series, which aired on History.

For Holness, it was a full circle moment.

“It was everything (to make that series). I made a documentary film 20 years ago about Black history in southwestern Ontario, and I thought it would ignite curiosity about Black Canadian stories, and it didn’t. So, when George Floyd was murdered, I was approached to pitch the series. My partner and I dropped everything to make that series.”

A quote from Jennifer Holness projected during the opening film, "Lovely Jackson", at the 2023 Toronto Black Film Festival. JORDAN MAXWELL SCREENSHOT

Today, as the founder and chair of the Black Screen Office and an executive board member of the Canadian Media Producers Association, Holness is advancing opportunities for Black and minority filmmakers in Canada.

“Seize the day. At this very moment, the media industry is more wide open than it’s ever been, but the opportunities are not a given. You’re going to have to put the time in,” she said.

The Rickey Jackson story premieres in Ontario

Rickey Jackson, right, pictured with his wife, at the premiere of his film, "Lovely Jackson", produced by Zodiac Features. JORDAN MAXWELL PHOTO

Also, a major part of the night’s festivities was the premiere of Matt Waldeck’s “Lovely Jackson.” The film is about a Black man named Rickey Jackson who was falsely imprisoned in Ohio for 39 years for a murder he did not commit.

“It was hard to revisit some of the memories,” Jackson told Black Dollar Magazine. “A lot of the scenes were shot in a prison that I was actually in at one point, but (Matt and I) became such good friends so it made the process more comfortable. Anyone that has something to share should share their story. It’s good to be able to get out there and spread this information.”

Jackson was sent to prison in 1976, where he was on death row for being identified in a murder on the coerced eye-witness testimony of a 12-year-old neighbourhood paper boy.

The movie features his younger self, the then-12-year paper boy, court proceedings, and more. Infuriating and heart-wrenching, the film also shows how he overcame tragedy, hopelessness, injustice, and the prospect of death for almost four decades. It also shows how he started anew with her wife and daughter following his release in 2014.

“It’s a humungous opportunity to get out there and share the emotions, not just the physical part,” Jackson said. I’m thrilled and overjoyed; I want to thank my partner, Matt (Weldeck, the producer/director/writer). I think he did a marvellous job, and hopefully, people will feel the passion and commitment we put into making it.”