PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL 2018 Film Reviews
The Feb. 8-19 Pan African Film Festival’s 26th annual extravaganza of Black-themed fiction, documentary, animated and short productions, workshops, panels and art expo was arguably one of its best fetes. Once again, PAFF presented Angelenos and aficionados with the opportunity to see on the big screen at Cinemark Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza movies that most film fans may otherwise not get a chance to watch. At the same time, filmmakers from around the world had the opportunity for their films to be shown in L.A., arguably the capital of world cinema.
Here’s a wrap up of the other works I saw at PAFF 2018:
King of Stage: The Woodie King Jr. Story - Actor/director Juney Smith’s 90 minute nonfiction biopic is a joyous celebration of the life, legacy and work of theatre impresario/producer/director of the title character. Smith (who acted in movies such as Lethal Weapon 2 and Good Morning Vietnam) has creatively transformed what could have been a very straightforward talking head documentary into an extremely imaginative, highly entertaining cinematic chronicle. The talented helmer did so by finding the visuals to accompany Woodie as he relates tales about growing up in Detroit and a life well-spent on the stage.
King is a sort of African American who’s who of the stage, as Woodie’s path crossed that of many of theatre’s greats, from Denzel Washington to Alfre Woodard to Leslie Uggams to August Wilson to Amiri Baraka to that other Manhattan stage stalwart Joseph Papp and beyond. A veritable force of nature in the realm of African American theatre, the doc shows Woodie’s role in bringing classics such as Ntozake Shange's 1975 For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf to the boards, presenting productions from Off-Broadway to Broadway to national and international tours, including a fun sequence with James Brown performing in Liberia.
Smith was presumably limited in budget and resources - in a Q&A he took part in after a PAFF screening it was stated that he shot Woodie in the basement of his NY apartment and cut the film using a computer and an editing program there too. What Smith has no limit of is art’s most crucial criteria: IMAGINATION, as he discovers graphic imagery and sound that enables him to visualize and express the content of Woodie’s saga as a sage of the stage. Smith also possesses another essential ingredient - a great love for his subject matter that is tenderly transmitted in every frame.
Still going strong and producing plays at 80, the successful Woodie comes across as the opposite of the stereotypical “tortured artiste,” starving in his garret - he is as affable as he is eloquent, with a strong inner resilience and determination. King was one of PAFF’s special “Spotlight Screenings” and at a second viewing on the festival’s last day, during the post-show Q&A with Smith, a woman who identified herself to me as “Foxy Brown” made the most moving, inspiring comment I’ve ever heard at these audience interactions that often devolve into self-promotion. Along with another bio-doc, Captain Thomas Sankara - about the great Burkina Fasso revolutionary - King of Stage: The Woodie King Jr. Story was my favorite film at 2018’s PAFF.
The Rape of Recy Taylor - This is another nonfiction biopic about real life noteworthy African Americans. In 1944 Ms. Taylor - a married mother of one - was kidnapped by gun-toting white teenagers and gang raped in Alabama. Nancy Buirski’s 91 minute documentary chronicles this historic injustice, which Oprah recently mentioned during her stirring awards ceremony speech. Like those spearheading today’s #metoo, Time’s Up and Rose’s Army anti-sexual harassment/ assault movement, much to her credit Ms. Taylor spoke out. One of her early defenders was Rosa Parks (long before she sparked the momentous Montgomery bus boycott).
Nevertheless, the rapists were never convicted. Of course, a decade later Emmett Till paid with his life for merely whistling (allegedly) at a white woman and the court case in Harper Lee’s classic novel To Kill a Mockingbird is about a Black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, which triggers a near-lynching and does not end well. So much for “justice” under American apartheid, which meant: “just-us” rednecks.
It’s great that Buirski, who directed 2011’s documentary The Loving Story - about a groundbreaking court case opposing anti-miscegenation laws - and produced the 2016 feature film version of these events is shining a light on Recy Taylor. Buirski cleverly uses clips from early “race films” by directors such as Oscar Micheaux in Rape, as well as archival footage, news clips and original interviews.
Unfortunately, for about 10 or so minutes of the doc, unlike in King of Stage, Buirski fails to find other corresponding visuals to graphically convey her theme and narrative. The film repeatedly shows scenes of the woods where Ms. Taylor was repeatedly raped and assaulted. These pointless shots are repetitive and become boring to watch. Reenactments in the Errol Morris Wormwood and I, Tanya mold or animation, for instance, could have served the picture’s purpose better (or even just shortening it). One might argue this is a matter of budget, but I suspect it is more likely a failure of filmic imagination.
In extolling the virtues of and emphasizing the special oppression of African American women under slavery and Jim Crow, Buirski unfortunately appears to be slighting the misery of Black males under the same unjust systems. Perhaps the flip side of the raping of Black women by racists was the castrating of Black men. Anyway, most victims of lynching were African American men. Like me, Buirski does not appear to be Black, and I think that Black males have endured and suffered enough from police brutality, etc., without having to be relegated to “second class status” in the ranking of victimization. The best comment I ever heard about the “who-is-more-oppressed-than- others-competition” came from actor/activist Marlon Brando who said: “It’s not an ouch contest.”
Nevertheless, despite these flaws in form and content, the subject matter of The Rape of Recy Taylor is extremely important and timely, especially given today’s resistance to sexual exploitation.
Black Lightning - PAFF presented a number of “Talk4Reel” events, including this screening of clips from the TV series about an African American superhero, followed by a panel with four of Black Lightning’s screenwriters. The CW program is entertaining, and it was interesting to see how it juggled comic book conventions; topical social justice issues (such as removing Confederate monuments); with a family drama. The post-screening panel discussed this and more as they fielded questions (many of them of the self-promotional and how-can-I-get-a-job? type). With all the buzz sweeping society about Black Panther - which was screened at PAFF as a gala - this screening/ discussion was very timely and informative.
Malcolm X: An Overwhelming Influence on the Black Power Movement - Thomas Muhammad’s 92 minute documentary about Malcolm X is an enjoyable, informative film. A straightforward biopic, it consists largely of archival footage and original interviews with one of Malcolm’s daughters and contemporary civil rights leaders, as Malcolm’s place in the cause is explored. This is an excellent primer on the prophetic voice of militant resistance to oppression and internationalizing the liberation movement.
Pacoima Stories: Land of Dreams - Crystal Jackson’s loving look at her hometown, a Black and immigrant community in L.A.’s San Fernando Valley, is a straightforward documentary using archival footage, original interviews, etc., to tell this neighborhood’s rich story. The 111 minute doc stretches back to tribal times in 450 A.D. up until today and covers many of the notables who emerged from that multi-culti place, such as “La Bamba” singer Ritchie Valens. The problem is Jackson is so enamored by her subject that she doesn’t know when to quit and jams too much into this seemingly never ending chronicle. This may also have to do with pleasing funders, but I am just guessing. Jackson’s frequent mispronunciations as the doc’s narrator are also distracting. Having said that, the theater was packed at the screening I attended, probably filled with a highly appreciative hometown crowd.
Found in a Dream - Helen Kassa’s feature film debut is a mixed bag. On the one hand it is amateurishly made - for example, the sound often picks up and amplifies every rustle in the characters’ clothing. Also, if I never see another production about violent Black gangstas and drug dealers I’ll be all the happier for it. But, despite its clichés, unprofessionalism and druggy tropes, Found in a Dream has the virtue of portraying Ethiopian exiles living in Australia and is shot in Melbourne and Ethiopia. Although the reasons why the characters were forced to leave their African homeland is never fully addressed, at least Kassa is making a step forward in the screen image of these people by portraying them in the movies. You’ve got to start somewhere.
The Chi - This Showtime series also deals with hoods in the ’hood. Although there has been a steady procession of Black gangstas running amok with guns from the TV news to Blaxploitation movies to FX’s great Snowfall series about the CIA and the crack epidemic (Gary Webb was right!), etc., The Chi is, admittedly, a well-made drama and the audience at the “Talk4Reel” screening seemed to love it. Viewers appeared to feel that the highly entertaining show was a realistic presentation of the realities of contemporary urban African Americans.
Recommended for You
And the PAFF 2018 Award Winners are:
Best Narrative Feature: Borders (Frontières) (Burkina Faso). Directed by: Woye Apolline Traoré
Best Director-First Feature Narrative: Kalushi (South Africa). Directed by: Mandlakayise Dube
Best Documentary Feature: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (US). Directed by: Samuel D. Pollard
Best Narrative Short:Kyenvu (Yellow) (Uganda). Directed by: Kemiyondo Coutinho
Best Documentary Short: Mama (US). Directed by: Nicholas Brennan
Programmers' Award-Narrative or Documentary Short: Lalo's House (Haiti/US). Directed by: Kelley Kali
Programmers' Award-Documentary: Barrow-Freedom Fighter (Barbados). Directed by: Marcia Weekes
Programmers' Award-Narrative Feature: Love Jacked (South Africa). Directed by: Alfons Adetuyi
PAFF Directors' Award-Feature Documentary (TIE): King of Stage: The Woodie King Jr. Story (US). Directed by: Juney Smith
PAFF Directors' Award-Feature Documentary (TIE): Maynard (US). Directed by: Samuel D. Pollard
PAFF Directors' Award- Feature Narrative: The Train of Salt and Sugar (Mozambique/South Africa). Directed by: Licínio Azevedo
Audience Award- Documentary Short: '63 Boycott (US). Directed by: Gordon Quinn
Audience Award- Documentary Feature: Sammy Davis, Jr.: I've Gotta Be Me (US). Directed by: Samuel D. Pollard
Audience Award- Narrative Short: For Evan's Sake (US). Directed by: Kirstin Lorin
Audience Award- Narrative Feature: Muslimah's Guide to Marriage (US): Directed by: Aminah Bakeer Abdul-Jabbaar
In my previous Pan African Film Festival review I referred to PAFF as “The Other Barrow Gang.” What I mean by this is that while Hollywood gives us movies like Bonnie and Clyde, celebrating the murderous, bank robbing Clyde Barrow gang, PAFF instead gives us Barrow - Freedom Fighter about Errol Walton Barrow, the independence leader and first prime minister of Barbados. As a venue for Black-themed films, PAFF is an essential, indispensable part of L.A.’s arts scene. The annual filmfest remains one of L.A.’s beloved cultural gems and an invaluable gateway for international cinema. For more info see: www.paff.org/.
The third edition of“The Hawaii Movie and Television Book”co-authored by L.A.-based film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell drops in March 2018.