Pan African Film Festival: A Fine Collection of Black Cinema
By Dwight Brown
NNPA Syndication Film Critic
Movie fans attending the 29th PAFF could watch its choice programming on a streaming app or computers, versus making the annual pilgrimage to Los Angeles. The setting is different, but the usual array of international African diaspora films is still impressive. Check out these four festival films that are on view from February 24th to March 14th at paff.org and in theaters near you in the future.
41st & Central: The Untold Story of The L.A. Black Panthers (***1/2) If you want to know the real story of the Black Panthers, ask ‘em. That’s what documentarian Gregory Everett did. Through vivid recollections by L.A. Panthers who survived to tell the story, he reconstructs the history of a social/political party that left its mark on the City of Angeles and black history. Legendary members (Elaine Brown and Kathleen Cleaver) share insightful anecdotes. Less known members (Roland Freeman and Wayne Pharr), who have survived jail sentences and LAPD gun battles, relive both their ups and downs like elders telling folk tales to a village. Before the L.A. chapter was founded, police routinely brutalized African Americans, with impunity. After their rise, which was born out of oppression, channeling anger and fueled by righteousness, police and the militants were at war. Panther commanders, like Alprentice “Bunchy” Carter and John Jerome Huggins, learned their leadership skills running gangs: Slausons, Gladiators, Del Vikings.
The main differences between the Oakland branch and the SoCal branch is that the brothers down south were strapped and knew how to shoot. Carter: “If you ain’t thinking lead, you’re already dead.” The chief difference between the Panthers organization and its cultural counterpart US (aka US Black People), led by Maulana Ndabezitha “Ron” Karenga (creator of Kwanzaa), was that Bunchy’s approach was defense and Ron’s was art. Toss in into the mix J. Edgar Hoover’s machinations, informers, strife with police and student groups taking over and it’s no wonder the powder keg exploded. The commentary on Blacks migrating from the South to Los Angeles and the racism they encountered in housing and treatment is illuminating. Everett’s directing/producing style is no-frills, tons of photos, footage, candid interviews and the truth as he knows it. In this historical doc, the hardcore spirit of a doomed but significant revolution finds a resting place. Unapologetic, fiery and significant. This non-fiction film chronicles a past that is very relevant in the present.
African America (**1/2) The bridge between Africa and America grows shorter every day. In this very modern tale of two continents, South African director/writer Muzi Mthembu conjures up a female protagonist, Johannesburg resident Nompumelelo (Phumi Mthembu), who stands on the precipice of marriage to her fiancé. She has already undergone a traditional nuptial, the commercial more modern one awaits. In the interim, she discovers a letter of acceptance to Julliard from 2009, that her deceased father hid from her for nearly a decade. Finding the missive motivates Nompumelelo to embezzle, fly from Joburg to New York and attempt to fulfill her dream of being an opera singer. Fortunately for her, she meets a young man named Jaquan (Anthony Goss, TV’s Ghosts of Fort Greene), her flawed angel.
Acting on instinct. Choosing ambition over customs. Living out secret dreams. Expressing dissatisfaction: “None of this is what I want.” All of it makes the bride-to-be’s impulsive behavior attractive. That’s the strength of Mthembu’s script; it holds your attention until she resolves her issues. And she has plenty. The screenplay’s weaknesses are melodramatic moments that don’t fit when realism would have sufficed. Production elements (cinematography, music, sets, editing) feel just about right for an indie film. All performances are fine. Muzi Mthembu’s creation is so pure and affecting in its development and execution that some audiences may assume a woman wrote and directed this touching cold-feet bride’s story. He should take that as a compliment.
Firestarter (***) In the U.S., choreographers like Alvin Ailey (Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater) and Arthur Mitchell (Dance Theater of Harlem) fused culture, race, ethnicity and social issues together in their choreography and performing arts. In Australia, Artistic Director Stephen Page, in collaboration with his brothers composer David Page and lead dancer Russell Page, accomplished that same feat with his internationally renowned Bangarra Dance Theatre. Founded in the 1980s, the troupe was born out of artistic brilliance and a need to express thoughts and feelings about the Pages’ proud aboriginal heritage. The social/political/racial implications of being indigenous people in a country dominated by white Australians are fundamental to them and on display.
Similarities between Page’s awareness of oppression and the self-esteem issues his brothers faced mirror the experiences of Ailey, Mitchell and African American life. The dance on view is expressive and often breathtaking. However, it’s the evolution of first nation people who have withstood forced assimilation, the kidnapping of their children and attempts to breed blackness out of the general population that is truly astonishing. Says one brother: “We carry trauma.” Co-directors Wayne Blair and Nel Minchin stick to the basics: archival footage, newspapers articles, past and current interviews… What sets this enlightening and emotional doc apart is its high level of consciousness. The 65,000-year-old culture of Aboriginals survives because visionary artists like Stephen Page leave behind a deep footprint that claims history, notes issues and projects empowerment for the next generation. This crucial story, about an all-indigenous dance company and its mission, has been well told and preserved by thoughtful filmmakers.
The Water Man (**) Actor David Oyelowo (Selma) makes an odd choice for his directing debut. It’s a script (Emily A. Needell) that centers around a family in which the mom (Rosario Dawson) is terminally ill and the father (Oyelowo) and son (Lonnie Chavis, TV’s This Is Us) don’t get along. And so, the boy sets out on a journey to find the Water Man, a forest creature with magical powers, in hopes that the monster can heal his mom. It’s a far-fetched fantasy kids’ drama, told from a young boy’s point of view. Though Oyelowo’s direction is decent, the story never takes you to that special place and the son’s venture into the forest rarely feels adventurous. Sightings of Bigfoot are too brief. Special effects are limp at best. The cast is earnest and the tech elements (musical score, cinematography, editing) are solid enough to make the movie coherent, but not much more. The only line of dialogue that stands out is dad’s admission: “I would take a short life with your mother rather than a long one without her.”
For more information about PAFF go to: https://www.paff.org