“When I think about it, everything bad that has ever happened to me has involved a black person.” Those words, spoken by a black man looking straight into the camera, kick off the British film Shoot the Messenger — perhaps the most emblematic film in this year’s Pan African Film Festival. Its subject is the fear and hatred of one’s own people, the ways in which projected bigotries are absorbed and perpetuated by the oppressed. To some degree, many of the films in the festival deal with that issue, either explicitly or as the political and cultural subtext that girds their characters’ lives. So it’s exasperating that Shoot, which brings all of that to the foreground, is such a muddle, a compelling premise weakly executed. Joe leaves his lucrative corporate job to teach in a school whose 800-strong student body is 70 percent black. Tough and unyielding with his charges, he’s falsely accused of assaulting a problem student. From there, branded a self-hating sellout by the black community, he spirals into madness and homelessness, bouncing from mental institution to a series of menial jobs that allow him to clock the countless ways the black psyche is assaulted by racism. All the while, though, he addresses the camera with witheringly antiblack bons mots. That he says and observes little that is new (at least to anyone who’s given real thought to racism and its legacies) is less disappointing than is the conceptualization of the lead character — a priss from the upper middle class — and its execution. David Oyelowo’s performance is so distractingly mannered that you want to smack him from opening frame to last.
By contrast, the film No. 2 suffers a bit from treading well-trod territory (the demise of tradition and the disintegration of culture for a Fijian family living in New Zealand), but the crackling performance by Ruby Dee as the dying family matriarch, and some very moving moments interspersed with typical family-gathering hijinks, elevate the film from its script.
It was recently announced that the cable series Noah’s Arc has been canceled but will reappear soon as a feature film. The series has always been problematic (wildly uneven acting, writing and direction), but at its core is a sweet, if formulaic, ode to friendship that made it an office-water-cooler/Internet sensation. The marathon showing of episodes from the second season is poised to be a highlight of the festival, with a call-and-response trigger built right into the material. Doesn’t hurt that the cast is rounded out with pure eye candy. Magic Johnson Theatres and other local venues; thru Feb. 19. www.paff.org.
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