His heart was in the right place, undoubtedly. But Skid Row, the documentary film in which former Fugees member Pras goes undercover as a homeless man on the streets of downtown L.A.'s Skid Row armed (supposedly but not really) only with a hidden camera, is pretty awful. A selection at this year's Pan African Film Festival, it's filled with unintentional self-parody that repeatedly undermines its good intentions: In one scene, after getting the message from his film crew that his agent needs to talk to him immediately, Pras exclaims, "I'm without my BlackBerry, without my Verizon phone," and then — with a straight face — equates his pop-star dilemma with the plight of the disenfranchised. Later, he turns up his nose at the fare served by the Los Angeles Mission ("I can't eat this food"), raises $15 panhandling, then rushes to the trendy Standard Hotel for a meal. Though the film is filled with talking heads who unleash a steady flow of grim statistics and bleak tales of survival, what lingers most from Skid Row is the absurdity of Pras strapping on the ill-fitting drag of social activist without first stripping off the perspective and entitlement of being rich and famous.
None of the dozen other films that PAFF (now celebrating its 16th year) made available for press preview are quite as bad as Skid Row, but almost none are must-see viewing either. One exception is director Raquel Cepeda's documentary Bling: A Planet Rock, in which rappers Kanye West, Jadakiss, Big Daddy Kane, Raekwon and Paul Wall (and reggaeton icon Tego Calderon) are flown to Sierra Leone to see firsthand the real costs of the diamonds that adorn their bodies and take second billing in their videos. While watching the rappers' consciousness be sparked is one of the film's payoffs ("Once you know about it," says Raekwon, "every time you see a diamond, you'll think of the massacres"), no less powerful is Bling's breakdown of how hop-hop's materialism and machismo resonate as the culture takes root in different parts of the world. The symbolic meaning of Tupac in Sierra Leone is especially fascinating. There are a slew of other hip-hop documentaries on the PAFF schedule this year, from all over the globe, and documentaries in general remain the one festival category where taking a shot in the dark is likely to yield a rewarding filmgoing experience.
As in past festival editions, too much of this year's narrative programming suffers from being self-conscious tonic — it's cinema that is "good for you." That's especially true of the American-made fare. All About Us, the story of a young, married African-American couple struggling to get a break in Hollywood while juggling the demands of a new baby and demeaning day jobs, has an attractive cast (including Boris Kodjoe), some legends in the cast (Ruby Dee) and great production values. But this "based on a true story" film strains too hard to be inspiring and uplifting, with sappy music that hammers emotional points, frequent cutaways to cute grinning babies, and wise words spoken by old women on the side of the road (Ms. Dee, natch). Likewise, the family drama Of Boys and Men, in which a family falls apart after their sainted mother (Angela Bassett) dies, only to find the true meaning of love and family after many misunderstandings and hurt feelings, is both maudlin and saccharine. These types of films, which countless black filmmakers have made (or tried to make) for years, with little media or industry support, have finally proved profitable in this Tyler Perry moment of rudimentary Negro cinema. With Perry's box-office gold shining in their makers' eyes, these films are posited as an antidote to the violent, oversexed, one-dimensional depictions of Black American life that have been churned out by Hollywood for years. Thing is, most of them lack artistic grit or characters with depth and nuance. The cause is understandable, even praiseworthy. It just doesn't make for an awful lot of good movies.
Perhaps the most anticipated film at PAFF is Charles Burnett's Namibia: The Struggle for Liberation. This epic film about Namibia's campaign for independence from South Africa — almost three hours long, spanning six decades and featuring more than 150 speaking parts in multiple languages and dialects — wasn't available for preview, and as the festival's opening-night gala, with tickets priced at $150 (which includes admission to an after-party), it's likely priced outside the budget of the average filmgoer. That's a shame, since after last year's triumphant theatrical release of Burnett's 1977 classic Killer of Sheep and a painstakingly assembled DVD box set (which also includes Burnett's 1983 feature, My Brother's Wedding, also screening at PAFF), the director is finally receiving long-overdue media and public recognition of his work. It would be wonderful if this meant that as wide an audience as possible could see Burnett's latest work (which premiered locally at last year's L.A. Film Festival and currently remains without a U.S. distributor). The brutal realities of festival fund-raising, however, dictate otherwise.
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PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL | AMC Magic Johnson Crenshaw 15 | Through Sun. Feb. 17 | www.paff.org