Given the right material and director, Aunjanue Ellis (Ray, Brother to Brother, The Caveman's Valentine, countless TV appearances) is a spectacular actress, but she also manages to shine in wack shit. Proof of the latter is offered in director Ryan Richmond's horribly titled Money Matters (U.S.), a coming-of-age tale in which 14-year-old Monique (aka Money) and her damaged, hyper-religious mother (played by Ellis) battle mean inner-city streets and meaner inner demons as they try to make sense of one another. Save for Money's same-sex foray, too much in the film, including a spoken word–inflected voice-over, is too familiar. (A scene between Money and her best friend talking next to their lockers is filled with so much stereotypical Black Girl Attitude that it rivals any MAD TV sketch.)
But with her expressive eyes and the ability to subtly fan emotion across her face, Ellis — who in many scenes is defeated by clichéd writing and uninspired direction — almost elevates the material. That's especially true in the moments where her character is languishing in a bathtub lamenting the effects of aging on her body, or staring into a mirror, blunt in hand, mechanically reciting affirmations — “I am important. I am special. I am somebody” — before drolly concluding, “I am high.”
The Tested (U.S.), another film starring Ellis slated to appear in this year's Pan African Film Festival (in which she again plays the emotionally distressed mom of a troubled teenager), wasn't available for preview. Neither were the opening-night film 35 & Ticking (starring Nicole Ari Parker, Jill Marie Jones, Mike Epps, Tamala Jones, Kym Whitley, Dondre Whitfield, Clifton Powell and Megan Goode) or closing night's DWB: Dating While Black — which is just as well. It's rare with any film festival that the titles anchoring big-ticket opening and closing galas are among the most artistically adventurous or satisfying in the program. Soul and substance are usually found between the bookends, and most predictably in the documentary selections.
Director Pablo Palacios' Flags, Feathers and Lies (U.S.) doesn't quite rise to the heights of the best post–Hurricane Katrina documentaries (such as Spike Lee's When the Levees Broke and Greg Palast's Big Easy to Big Empty: The Untold Story of the Drowning of New Orleans), in part because Palacios isn't in hard-core investigative-journalist mode: He simply wants to document the fate of the Mardi Gras Indians (black men who “mask” in Native American–inspired attire to re-enact songs and rituals rooted in African culture) following the horrors of Katrina. Although the film could be much more tightly edited, it often achieves a kind of hypnotic quality as Palacios' camera follows folks through bars, down streets, across various neighborhoods and through their homes as they discuss the “slave days to now” origins and evolution of the Mardi Gras Indians, while also sharing memories of, and sometimes grieving for, New Orleans in general.
Hip-hop cultural critic–turned-filmmaker Dream Hampton's Black August (U.S.) is an engrossing critique of the creation and incarceration of America's political prisoners (in this case, African-American political activists). The film is deft and fast-moving, and Hampton shrewdly introduces the subject by having Dave Chappelle function as a kind of clueless Everyman, explaining the historical meaning and connotations of the term “Black August” by first admitting he only recently heard the term, before breaking down its significance: Black Panther George Jackson was murdered by San Quentin prison guards in August 1971, kicking off a lineage of African-American political tragedies that would occur over the years in the month of August. With crisply shot concert footage from the annual consciousness-raising, New York–based Black August Hip-Hop Festival (performers include Mos Def, Common, Talib Kweli and Dead Prez) juxtaposed against interviews with political exiles Nehanda Abiodun and Assata Shakur, the documentary is the perfect blend of sleek professionalism and gritty substance.
Also recommended: Hawa Essuman's flawlessly acted coming-of-age fable Soul Boy (Kenya/Germany), about a 14-year-old boy who has to reclaim his father's soul after the man loses it to a local witch. The tasks she sets before the boy are subtle tests of his own character, forcing him to open his eyes to the lives and struggles taking place all around him everyday. João Daniel Tikhomiroff's gorgeously shot Besouro (Brazil) is set in the 1920s and based on the true life of the legendary capoeira fighter nicknamed “Besouro Manganga” (after a large, black flightless beetle), who used his extraordinary physical prowess to battle plantation owners who wanted to put former slaves back into sharecropping bondage in the early 20th century.
A supernatural-tinged tale in which the ancestors of a wealthy family put them through a series of tests to see if they're worthy of their blood-soaked inheritance, The Inheritance (U.S.), directed by Robert O'Hara, is filled with unintentional laughs and stilted direction. But it's just kinda cool to see familiar, woefully underemployed black faces (Golden Brooks, D.B. Woodside, Darrin Dewitt Henson, Shawn Michael Howard) up on the big screen. A guilty-pleasure recommendation, only.
THE PAN AFRICAN FILM FESTIVAL | Feb. 16-21 | Culver Plaza Theater | paff.org