Gender and sexual politics, the lingering power of the color-caste system, critiques of the production and exploitation of the world's black cultures, and the search for a meaningful black “self” beneath it all – these are the issues, themes and marketing hooks that populate this year's Pan African Film Festival. Some of the works being showcased are the cinematic equivalent of your least favorite vegetable: Just eat it, it's good for you. They have a level of uncomplicated earnestness that's mirrored in their straightforward, flourish-free narrative and visual styles. They're noble, sincere and enough to make you gnaw off a limb to escape the theater. But then there are those entries that leap at you – sometimes they're crudely made or sketchily written, but real heart comes through.
To be fair, the festival is bursting with material, but only a fraction of it was made available to the press for preview. (Glancing at the schedule of events, you might guess that some of the least interesting stuff is what was pre-screened.) What can be recommended from those sparse offerings, though, are the following. Taafe Fanga (Skirt Power), is a Malian film directed by Adama Drabo that blends farce, mythology and a comedic touch into a serious political examination of the role(s) of modern African women. Although set in the 18th century, the film speaks pointedly to contemporary cultural and social upheaval and the ongoing discrepancies between the sexes. Canada's The Planet of Junior Brown from director Clement Virgo is an offbeat, nicely layered tale of the friendship between Junior Brown, an overweight, overprotected teenage musical prodigy, and Buddy, his streetwise orphaned friend. Though the films sometimes veers into the after-school-special zone, Lynn Whitfield's melancholic presence as Junior's mom, and the juxtaposition of Junior's actual and fantasy worlds with Buddy's grim realities, keep Junior Brown from hardening into formula while giving it a genuinely moving emotional center.
Also worth checking out is Dancehall Queen, which received a limited release last year. Technically shaky, often visually muddy, Don Letts and Rick Elgood's film transcends its limitations through its island-Cinderella story (an old-before-her-time single mom navigates the harsh world of gangsters and neighborhood thugs to become a local heroine), its realistic depictions of poverty and desperation, and ample doses of wicked, dry humor. It also doesn't hurt that the soundtrack is absolutely slamming. (For those whose ears aren't attuned to the thick dialect, the first 15 minutes or so of Dancehall can be frustrating, but your ears do adjust, and the story itself easily carries you along.)
Macky Alston's Family Name, a young white man's journey into history to find the links between his slave-owning ancestors and the black folks in a small North Carolina town who share the same last name, is absolutely fascinating, full of twists and turns that speak volumes about the complicated issues surrounding race in this country. (The documentary had a brief run last year.) There are also documentaries on the Black Panthers, hip-hop culture and domestic abuse.
What sets the Pan African Film Festival apart from other festivals is its abundance of panels, workshops, Q&A sessions with actors and directors, poetry readings and miniconcerts. This year is no exception. Talents such as Blair Underwood, Dawn Suggs, Charles Burnett (who is presenting the L.A. premiere of his new film, Final Insult) and a host of others are scheduled to appear in conjunction with their work.
Of the works not screened that seem worthy of note, the Burnett, the short films and documentaries (often in hybrid form) appear strongest. Dawn Sugg's Firefly follows the spiritual and emotional growth of an abused girl. Ngozi Onwurah's Coffee Colored Children, a semiautobiographical tale from Nigeria, follows a young biracial brother and sister who try to scour their bodies white after being harassed about their color. Also from Nigeria are the shorts And Still I Rise and Who Stole the Soul; the former traces the historical roots of various myths and stereotypes that still cling to black women; the latter explores the importance of music to black culture.
PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL
45 features and 38 shorts, running February 5-16
Magic Johnson Theaters
General information: (213) 896-8221
Magic Johnson box office: (213) 290-5900