There's a visually gorgeous club scene in the film La Playa D.C. (a Brazil/Colombia/France co-production), in which Afro-Colombian teenager Tomas Diaz dances in the middle of a writhing mass of bodies, the crowd moving to a throttling hip-hop beat. In a film that purposefully and without heavy-handedness captures the casual racism faced by the descendants of African slaves in Colombia, and which gingerly drops in historical nuggets about the brutal realities of those slaves, this moment in the film is an artful assertion of racial pride on the part of director Juan Andrés Arango Garcia. The actors are lit in a way that emphasizes the darkness of their skin and the beauty of that darkness, while the camera captures a sea of wide noses, thick lips, round asses and ornately cut and decorated kinky hair. Observing the array of hairstyles triggers an epiphany in Tomas that will change his life.
La Playa, a gritty coming-of-age tale set against the mean streets of Bogotá, and one of the highlights of this year's Pan African Film & Arts Festival, embodies several of the themes and hot-button issues that dominate this year's program. Tomas' older brother, Chaco, has been recently deported from Canada and is scheming to return.
That subplot places La Playa in conversation with other scheduled films like Moussa Touré's tense, riveting The Pirogue, about a retired Senegalese fisherman strong-armed into transporting a boatful of men (and one woman) to Europe, where, if they survive the tumultuous journey, they'll become part of the growing ranks of undocumented people.
Meanwhile, Sudz Sutherland's Home Again tackles the issue of Jamaica's swelling population of deportees, undocumented Jamaican immigrants in the United States, Canada and the U.K., who are caught up in increasingly Draconian immigration laws, and forcibly repatriated. As Home illustrates, many of those later returned to Jamaica are young adults who haven't been in the country since they were small children; the culture shock they experience upon being returned can be devastating. A triptych in which its two male-driven tales showcase a bustling Jamaica of cutthroat criminality and exploitation, Home's emotional center is its story of the mother (wonderfully played by Tatyana Ali) ripped from her two children when she is returned to her birthplace.
These films serve to remind American audiences that immigration is a volatile issue in several countries, not just here. Its effect on black lives and bodies receives scant coverage in U.S. media, which is where the PAFF (celebrating its 21st anniversary this year) proves an invaluable resource by gathering in one program a number of films that tackle the subject.
Part of the festival's self-imposed mandate is education on the political and cultural issues affecting people of African descent around the world, showcasing films that shine a light on the contemporary realities and shadowed histories that get short shrift in mainstream discourse.
To that end, while celebrity-driven events provide the glamour — the festival's opening-night gala this year is a screening of Vipaka, starring Forest Whitaker, Anthony Mackie, Sanaa Lathan, Nicole Ari Parker and Mike Epps, while Lynn Whitfield is receiving this year's PAFF Lifetime Achievement Award — some of the most powerful grit comes in the programming that doesn't glitter so much.
As always, the documentaries are among the best films offered. This year there are works on figures as diverse as Angela Davis (Shola Lynch's Free Angela and All Political Prisoners), Iceberg Slim (Jorge Hinojosa's Iceberg Slim: Portrait of a Pimp) and Josephine Baker (Philip Judith-Gozlin's The Other Josephine, co-written by the iconic diva's son, Brian Bouillon Baker), as well as titles that have already made an impression on the festival circuit and are well worth checking out — among them Ken Burns, Sarah Burns and David McMahon's Central Park Five, about the black and Latino youth railroaded into confessing to the infamous 1989 Central Park rape; and Sam Pollard's Slavery By Another Name, which traces the modern prison-industrial complex to its roots in slavery, Reconstruction and Jim Crow laws.
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But the must-see documentary, especially for jazz fans, is Charles Lloyd: Arrows to Infinity. Unless you're a committed jazzhead, Lloyd's name doesn't carry much resonance anymore, which is a true shame, as he's one of the genre's most visionary, innovative figures. The documentary, directed by Dorothy Darr and Jeffrey Morse, is in many ways standard genre fare — lots of insightful talking heads, interviews with the subject himself, incisive use of stock footage, ample use of old performance footage. But it's the last item that proves especially magnetic.
Having people like John Densmore (The Doors), Robbie Robertson (The Band), Herbie Hancock and cultural critic Stanley Crouch venerate the man and his talent is one thing. But Darr and Morse insert extended clips of performance footage that allows Lloyd to make his own case, and it is dazzling stuff. Long after the stories of battles with record labels and even deadlier battles with drug addiction fade, and long after his poignant explanation as to why he went into self-exile, it's the music that matters, and Arrow to Infinity wisely puts the music front and center.
One of the festival's biggest films is likely to be one that isn't programmed and has already proven to be a massive box office hit, and that's the controversial Django Unchained. Producer Reggie Hudlin, is slated to give a keynote speech on the state of black entertainment, in which he undoubtedly will speak on Django and the controversies around it. There is also a planned panel on the film, "Django Unchained: A Discussion on Slavery and the 150th Anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation," scheduled for Feb. 10 at 3:15 p.m. at the Rave Theaters. It undoubtedly will be a passionate discussion.
PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL | Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 | Feb. 7-18 | paff.org