Two days after returning from the Jan. 18 funeral of writer, activist, scholar and soothsayer Amiri Baraka, Pan African Film Festival co-founder and longtime director Ayuko Babu told L.A. Weekly, "The Pan African Film Festival would not have been created or sustained if not for Brother Baraka's input. He played a major role in my personal development."
"He made me understand that, notwithstanding the bread-and-butter issues that [black] people face, it was the struggle around culture that was the most decisive issue, because it is culture that helps people deal with day-to-day life," Babu added.
It's fitting, then, that in memory of the late iconoclast, the festival — celebrating its 22nd anniversary this year — boasts its strongest program in recent memory.
Opening-night film Of Good Report, written and directed by Jahmil X.T. Qubeka, is an audacious reimagining of the Lolita tale, in which the somewhat creepy new male teacher at a rural South African school becomes fatally drawn to a precocious female student. Shot in black-and-white, the film opens on a gory image (a man pulling two teeth from a bloody wound in the back of his head) before unfolding into a full-circle narrative full of expository (but never dull or heavy-handed) flashbacks and escalating madness. Just as the whole thing appears to drift toward fetishizing or apologizing for the power imbalance in this dynamic of inappropriate male lust (is there anything more played out than the Lolita tale, in real or reel life?), Qubeka twists the plot and drives the film toward a chilling conclusion.
There are many other fantastic narrative films on tap. In Mahamat-Saleh Haroun's Grisgris (from Chad), a man's lame leg makes him a crowd-pleasing dancer at local clubs and his ecstatic dancing is his means of mental escape, even as he finds himself on the run (along with a biracial prostitute) from gangsters he's stolen from.
Zézé Gamboa's propulsive The Great Kilapy (O Grande Kilapy) gives stateside film fans the too-rare opportunity to see the insanely magnetic Lázaro Ramos in action as an Angolan Robin Hood figure who embezzles money from a bank in order to help fund a liberation movement.
Alexandre Moors' Blue Caprice, inspired by the Beltway sniper attacks of 2002 and starring Isaiah Washington and Tequan Richmond, is on the program here after a disappointingly brief theatrical run last year. It's definitely worth catching on the big screen.
As usual, however, it's the documentary roster that really gives the festival its artistic and political heft. Freida Mock's much buzzed-about Anita Hill documentary Anita: Speaking Truth to Power, which screened at the Sundance Film Festival in 2013, wasn't available for press preview, but three other must-see documentaries were.
Small Small Thing, directed by Jessica Vale and set in Liberia, takes a familiar subject — the sexualized costs of war on the bodies of women and girls — and shatters us, taking us on the arduous journey to recovery by 9-year-old Olivia, so brutally raped at age 6 by an adult cousin that she's left incontinent, with grotesque scars that refuse to heal. The film is riveting and infuriating at once.
Thomas Allen Harris' poetic, information-packed Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People outlines the history and legacies of African-American photographers, many of whom were lost to history until scholar Deborah Willis set about recovering them from invisibility.
In a film that easily (and ideally) could have been a Ken Burns–style miniseries, topics range from the racist propaganda of Reconstruction imagery to the treasure trove of blacks who, within one generation of being freed from slavery, were wealthy and politically powerful. It gracefully segues from commenting on the prescience and savvy of revolutionary figures like Frederick Douglas and Sojourner Truth (who both early on realized the political possibilities of controlling and disseminating their images) to showing how Booker T. Washington's politics of respectability, which played out in his images, were rooted in the media ideals of Douglas and Truth.
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In one of the film's most lovely, unforced bits of commentary, Allen traces the trajectory from all of that to the groundbreaking work of the 20th century's Gordon Parks and Roy DeCarava, both of whom eschewed respectability politics to show the humanity and beauty of the most marginalized members of the black community. And Allen does all this while anchoring his film in an exploration of what cameras and photography have meant in his own artistic family.
For sheer crowd-pleasing force, however, nothing tops Brothers Hypnotic, Reuben Atlas' sprawling, hugely enjoyable look at the horn-playing collective of the film's title — the race-conscious sons of legendary jazz man Phil Cohran.
Grounded in traditional instruments and shaped by the rigor of their father's intense instruction (both musical and political), the hip-hop—inflected brothers wade through their own jaw-dropping backstory, the struggle of being indie artists, generational tensions with their father, delicate dances with record labels, sibling rivalry and sharing the stage with Prince and Mos Def. It's a dizzying, never less than captivating ride. And the film-closing monologue that their father records for one of their albums is a gentle nod to the politics and purpose of the late Amiri Baraka.
PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL | Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 | Feb. 6-17 | paff.org