The Pan African Film Festival has long been one of L.A.'s most important festivals, showcasing films from the African diaspora that other fests ignore or shortchange. This year, however, the festival has a heightened relevance, as a new generation of young activists is taking on institutional and systemic anti-blackness — with emphasis on police brutality.

Many of the festival's films rise to the challenge of illustrating the complexity within the declaration, “Black lives matter.” One of the best films this year is Stanley Nelson's dazzling, possibly definitive documentary The Black Panthers: Vanguard of the Revolution. Fittingly, it's the festival's opening-night film. A thorough history of the rise and fall of the still-controversial, still-misunderstood political organization, the doc is filled with rare archival and news footage, as well as interviews with dozens of historians, retired policemen and former Panthers, men and women.

None of it is extraneous, even as the film exhaustively lays out the various causes and spiraling effects that fueled and doomed the Panthers. It makes the distinction between the Southern-based civil rights movement and the Panthers' Oakland-based effort, while mapping the collective's gender roles and tensions, showing the group's outreach to Asians, Latinos and poor whites, and tracing Huey Newton's trajectory from brilliant strategist to doped-up tyrant. Laced with humor (former Young Lords member Felipe Luciano's summing up of Eldridge Cleaver is scaldingly funny), the film ultimately chills in its inadvertent illustration of how little has changed from the '60s to now.

In heady conversation with Vanguard is Göran Olsson's Concerning Violence, which takes one element of Vanguard — its contextualizing of America's Black Power movement as part of a global fight — and expands on it to survey liberation struggles across Africa in the 1960s. Using the writing of Frantz Fanon (voiced by Lauryn Hill) to contextualize and analyze those struggles, the film is a captivating history lesson, clarifying the roots of much of the contemporary strife in various African countries. It's pitch-perfect nonfiction filmmaking, artful and hugely informative all at once.

Back stateside, the documentaries The Cooler Bandits and Out in the Night illustrate the stacked decks when black people — criminals and victims alike — deal with the criminal justice system. Bandits follows the stories of four black men who, as teenagers 20 years ago, robbed several restaurants before they were caught and sentenced to a total of 500 years in prison. Shot between the years 2006 and 2013, it's a crushing look at the fallout of over-sentencing.

Out in the Night tells the horrific legal tale of the New Jersey 4, the young black lesbians who defended themselves against assault from a homophobic street vendor in August 2006. The assailant, a black man, was cast as a victim by the police and homophobic media while the women were vilified in the press (“Attack of the Killer Lesbians,” screamed a New York Post headline) and railroaded by the court. It's a painful, infuriating viewing experience — but also highly recommended.

At one point in Vanguard, a series of interview subjects charmingly explain that part of the Panthers' power and appeal was their swagger, their sexiness — in short, their cool. Black cool is the unspoken subject of the documentaries Mary Lou Williams: The Lady Who Swings the Band, in which the late, undersung music heroine finally gets her due as a trailblazing jazz pianist and peerless artist, and The Case of the Three-Sided Dream, which poetically celebrates the sprawling genius of jazz giant Rahsaan Roland Kirk. Old Kirk performance footage is itself worth the price of admission.

Other festival highlights: the visual handiwork of legendary African-American cinematographer Arthur Jafa in writer-director Nefertite Nguvu's In the Morning, which Jafa also produced; heart-wrenching performances by Gbenga Akinnagbe in Home (in which he movingly portrays a man struggling to rebuild his life after a mental breakdown) and Aunjanue Ellis in Una Vida (in which the underrated actress portrays an elderly jazz singer with Alzheimer's); the taut Veve (from Kenya), in which byzantine political intrigue, the drug trade and infidelity all swirl; psychological crime thriller October 1, set in 1960 Nigeria, wherein an ace elderly detective is given 30 days to solve a gruesome double murder before power is handed off from England to Nigerian leaders; and Nick Broomfield's masterful documentary Tales of the Grim Sleeper, inspired by the groundbreaking investigative reporting of L.A. Weekly's Christine Pelisek, in which the LAPD dragged its feet for 20 years as a serial killer preyed on black women (largely prostitutes) with impunity.

PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL | Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 4020 Marlton Ave., Baldwin Hills/Crenshaw | Through Feb. 16 |

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