By Sherrie Li
By Falling James
By Amanda Lewis
By Amy Nicholson
By Amy Nicholson
By Jennifer Swann
By Scott Foundas
By Sherrie Li
Although some American filmmakers still try to make movies inspired by something other than movies — stories born of some divine flicker, some pressing need to shine a light in a darkened corner — increasingly they are the exception. Armed with an aesthetic and a world-view that go no deeper than a Blockbuster membership card, too many simply rebuild what’s already been built — for better or worse. American Negro cinema, especially, is stuck in this artistic house of mirrors, as it gutlessly recycles characters (actually, caricatures) and story lines to snare the inner-city black audience while crossing over to whites and “others.” That familiarity may breed contempt, but it also breeds box office. (The Queen Latifah hit Bringing Down the House, which she executive-produced, is yet another Negro-messiah-from-the-hood-teaches-whitey-how-to-live-and-love flick; it grossed more than $31 million during its opening weekend by pulling in a kum-ba-yah, multiculti, all-ages crowd.) While smarter Negrophile efforts, like smarter films everywhere, tweak and subvert expectation, most just coast — on the popularity of hip-hop and rappers, on the templates of black rage and dysfunction, on the all-but-dead hope that Chris Rock will someday head up a decent movie.
With only a few exceptions, the fare at this year’s Hollywood Black Film Festival — 39 short films, 11 documentaries, eight student films, seven features, five animation projects and three world-cinema shorts — looks like more of what’s already out there. The good news is that, in large part thanks to advances in digital video, the balance between raw, amateurish efforts and slickly professional presentation tilts heavily toward the latter. The bad news is that there’s just not an awful lot that makes a lasting impression, or that pushes beyond predictability. Inner-city romances that play like hip-hop-remixed Terry McMillan, along with the requisite tales of drugs, violence and urban despair, once more dominate the proceedings.
Unsurprisingly — at least to the frequent festivalgoer — the documentaries here play somewhat better. Andrea Kalin’s good and good-for-you Partners of the Heart, a low-pulse essay on the interracial doctor team of Vivien Thomas (black) and Alfred Blalock (white) who came together to pioneer the first pediatric open-heart surgery in 1944, shines a light on two forgotten heroes and the social and cultural obstacles they overcame (told with all the fire and zest you’d expect from a tasteful PBS fund-raising encore). Writer-director Wayne Blair, in the moving Australian fiction short Black Talk, reminds us that intra-racial tensions along the divide of skin shade play out all over the world. But only the two faux-documentary shorts, Hadjii’s The Making of Brick City, a hilarious look at the making of an “urban” film in which the plight of inner-city mice is juxtaposed against the bigoted way they’re portrayed onscreen, and the Inglewood-based black film collective PSTOLA’s The Corporate Negro, a satiric look at bicultural schizophrenia — at the tensions, similarities and contradictions between the demands of corporate poses and nigga-time realities — show any genuine bite or ingenuity. Both films are a potent mix of irreverence and social consciousness, taking on Afro-American sacred cows, while also tackling racism, Hollywood and the ways black folk perpetuate the imagery that shackles them. (Yo, Latifah.) Brick City, in following the travails of angry indie filmmaker Mookie Mouse, is a pointed critique of black representation in Hollywood, taking well-aimed jabs at everyone from Spike Lee and John Singleton to various self-important black intellectuals (at one point, an effete film critic breaks Mookie’s message down: “We didn’t land on government cheese — government cheese landed on us”). The Corporate Negrozeros in on the ways in which various black realities are shaped and impacted by pop/ghetto culture. Playing like a Chris Rock Show skit as written by The Boondocks’ Aaron McGruder, the short swims in weary disdain for racial stereotypes even while owning up to the kernels of truth they may contain, and to the power they hold over those — black folk included — who subscribe to them.
Since seeing The Corporate Negro, PSTOLA have become my new favorite filmmakers. Their blend of hood-rat savvy, scathing wit and art-school geekiness gives voice to a complex, multi-tiered “black sensibility” that goes far beyond the false divides of sellout vs. real, corporate vs. ghetto, boho vs. thug that keep getting played out in real lives and — endlessly — in the media. They are, in so many ways, future blackness.
The Fifth Annual Hollywood Black Film Festival runs from March 25–30. For more information, visitwww.hbff.org or call (310) 712-3998.
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