This year’s Pan African Film & Arts Festival boasts one of the strongest programming slates in the event’s recent history, due in large part to the wealth of documentaries on deck — a large number of which concern themselves with issues affecting black artists and artistry around the world, from the ways in which the universal conflict between art and commerce is complicated by race to the lack of critical respect and scholarship afforded to black art. One of the most invigorating efforts is Kenyan director Michael Wanguhu’s Hip Hop Colony, in which Wanguhu and screenwriter Russell Kenya critique hip-hop as a colonizing force encircling the globe, using the Kenyan hip-hop scene as the locus of their argument. It’s a tough, smart read they give, pointing up the liberating and positive aspects of hip-hop culture even as they are clearly disturbed by the materialism and uniformity that prevail. On the flip side is the PBS-styled Le Mozart Noir, in which director Raymond Saint-Jean employs dramatic re-creations, musical performances and tastefully shot talking heads to rescue Joseph Boulogne, Le Chevalier de Saint-Georges, from history’s waste bin. Accomplished in the art of fencing, a celebrated athlete and a political activist, this son of a slave woman and minor French aristocrat was also a visionary composer whose work had a deep influence on Mozart. It’s a fascinating story from start to finish, and Saint-Jean’s lean, fast-moving approach wisely trusts the inherent drama and intrigue to carry the tale. Less satisfying in terms of craft, but just as riveting for its content is Black Theater Today, in which actress-turned-director Thea Marie Perkins picks up a camera and gets a host of celebrated stage folk (Harry Lennix, Viola Davis, Ella Joyce, Art Evans) talking about the past, present and future of black theater in America. The subject is far too broad to be done justice in the scant 67-minute running time and Perkins wastes too much time with self-aggrandizing skits and celebration of her own career. But the palpable passion of Lennix and Davis (among others) as they speak about their personal struggles — “There are two categories [carved out] for me,” says Davis with frustration, “mama and hoochie mama” — plus rare interview footage of the late cult actress Diana Sands and playwright Lorraine Hansberry make the film a must-see item. (Magic Johnson Theaters, 4020 Marlton Ave.; thru Feb. 20.; www.paff.org)
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