Becoming a Queen
(Canada, 109 min.)
Dir. Chris Strikes
Featuring: Joella Crichton, Kenney Coombs, Lou-Ann Crichton, Mischka Crichton, Nnketa Elliot
In anticipation of the return in late July of the Toronto Caribbean Carnival, which is still referred to locally as “Caribana,” it’s nice to see that award-winning video director Chris Strikes’ documentary on Joella Crichton, the longest running Queen of the festival, is being made available for all to see on digital from Game Theory Films in Canada and Gravitas Ventures in the USA. Strikes’ film concentrates on the preparations for the 2018 event when Crichton was chosen to be the face of the festival. It was an understandable choice since Joella, along with her mother Lou-Ann, older sister Mischka and Saint Lucian-born and old family friend Kenney Coombs, had been the dominant group creating gorgeous costumes for the Carnival Queen Competition for the past decade at that point. The drama, such as it is in the doc, is whether Joella and her team can win a 10th prize for her as she bows out of the competition.
While the film does adhere to the countdown timeline approach that has worked so well in competition films since Wordplay and Mad Hot Ballroom established the form nearly 20 years ago, Strikes misses an essential point. Whether it’s crosswords or competitive dancing, the viewer wants to know who to cheer for and why. That means profiling more than one team and at least the main contestants from other groups. Becoming a Queen neglects to do that, concentrating solely on Joella, her patient and intelligent mother and her old friend—really almost a relative—Kenney Coombs, who is wry, funny and never reveals much about himself. And quite frankly, Joella Crichton and her mother and sister seem like nice Canadian women—attractive, likeable but not overwhelmingly fascinating.
Delving deeply into what makes Joella Crichton, Kenney Coombs and Lou-Ann Crichton tick might be enough to make the doc fascinating. Regrettably, Chris Strikes never examines what motivates these two main protagonists, apart from the obvious desire to place #1 and continue to do what he does (in the case of Coombs). Much time is spent on the preparations for the queen’s costume, which is admittedly an extraordinary creation. Every year, the costume becomes more elaborate and the themes more persuasive. Coombs is clearly an artist and the costumes he makes are more colourful and gorgeous each year, matching and building on the themes suggested by Caribana. The uses of red and gold are extraordinary, and the overall effect is of the world’s largest peacock dancing with its feathers intact across a huge ballroom.
The big moment in Becoming a Queen is when a beautifully dressed Joella gamely carts along Coombs’ latest fashion creation to loud audience approval. You feel as if she’s the lead singer for one of Phil Spector’s hits, say “Be My Baby” or “Then He Kissed Me,”—impressive, beloved but not the kind of personality that made Aretha Franklin or Diana Ross famous. Whether she wins or loses her tenth title suddenly doesn’t matter. What Joella Crichton’s team has done is extraordinary and their contribution to Caribana is clearly immense.
Those of us who remember the old grey Toronto recognize what Caribana and around the same time, the immense outpouring of joy on College Street when crowds celebrated the Italian victory in the 1982 World Cup, meant to the city. Suddenly “multiculturalism” wasn’t just a term: it was a reality as people of different ethnicities and colours began to claim their rights as citizens. Joella Crichton is younger and her reign as carnival queen happened somewhat later, after Caribana had been celebrated and somewhat tamed by our “city fathers.”
For a Torontonian, Becoming a Queen is a film that doesn’t tell as much as it could reveal. Why does the famous Caribana parade take place in Exhibition Place and all the way near the lake? It used to run down University Avenue. Why have we been “saved” from that privilege? Speaking about the film itself, why don’t we learn more about the Crichton family? And Kenney Coombs?
Becoming a Queen is worth seeing but I can’t help thinking that a better—more hard-hitting– film about Caribana is waiting to be made.
Becoming a Queen is in digital release on June 14 in the USA and on July 19 in Canada.