The Pan African Film Festival (PAFF), underway this week at Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15, has for 22 years showcased the best produced and most overlooked stories of the Black experience from not just America, but from around the world.
Ayuko Babu, executive director of PAFF, said the festival provides a platform and “network” for young Black film professionals—whether they be in front or behind the camera—to demonstrate to the world that “Hollywood” is a varied mixture of many stories told via motion pictures, documentaries or short subjects.
PAFF has had its share of big-name performers who have performed in these small, independent productions, but the bigger news is that more young Blacks are gaining a foothold in positions such as “gaffers,” “key grip,” “foley artists,” “best boy” etc. as well as the coveted position of first assistant director.
“We provide a consistent place where people can network,” Babu said. “Very often, production persons from the major studios and production companies will come out to meet these young people because they have seen their work via PAFF. The festival provides an opportunity for these filmmakers to meet with persons who may have worked in production for 20 or 30 years; they often get tips and pointers from some of the best in the motion picture industry, and that can lead to a promising career.”
One such “breakout” star who was first showcased at PAFF was British actor Idris Elba, now seen in the popular docu-drama “Mandela: Long Walk to Freedom,” who received the prestigious Canada Lee Award given to Black performers who demonstrate outstanding potential for stardom. PAFF played a large part in the popularity of “Dr. Hugo,” a 1998 short by filmmaker Kasi Lemons which went on to achieve critical acclaim. “Tsotsi” from 2006 went on to win the “Best Foreign Language” Oscar. Popular actor/director Eric LaSalle has also been recognized for his contributions to Black films, most notably his work in Spike Lee’s “Drop Squad” in 1994.
Despite the advances these young filmmakers are making, so-called “film flight” has made it even more difficult to get a foothold in the industry. Babu pointed to the familiar story of “last hired, first fired” when it comes to Black production workers who may complete a project for a production company, and be told the next week that production will move across or even out of the country. “We still don’t have a lot of seniority in these production jobs; that’s why PAFF is so vital in getting more Black persons—from around the world—into the industry,” Babu explained. “White production workers may have had a grandparent working in the industry in the 1940s or ‘50s. It has taken a generation for Blacks to enter these production jobs. We’re proud that we’ve helped open the door to these positions and we have witnessed many persons go onto work in major motion pictures.”
South Africa’s National Film and Video Foundation as well as the Chinese film industry have contributed films to PAFF and have developed a working relationship during the past few years (i.e. “The Great Kaylipi”). Representatives from each body will be in town on Feb. 15. The latter film was a joint venture with filmmakers in Angola and featured Lazaro Ramos, to date the most prominent Black actor in Brazil.
There are more famous film festivals such as Robert Redford’s “Sundance,” Robert De Niro’s “Tribeca” or “Hollywood” film festivals, but PAFF has more people in attendance. “We’re bigger than ‘Sundance,’” Babu explained. “More than 35,000 people each year have seen our films, and more than 100,000 have visited the art festival. We want to reach TV, the theaters, Wal-Mart and Best Buy and get more buyers to recognize these films. The other film festivals may have more prestige because the films are primarily about White people. We want more Black people to see these films because they will be supporting new voices and a fresh take on Hollywood.”
PAFF was founded in 1992 by actor Danny Glover and actress Ja’Net DuBois, as well as Babu, an international expert on African affairs. The not-for-profit corporation is dedicated to the promotion of “ethnic and racial respect and tolerance” via the exhibition of films, art and the creative expression. They stress that film and art can lead to a better understanding and foster more communication between people of diverse cultures, races and lifestyles, while serving as a vehicle to initiate dialogue on the important issues of the day.
Rave Cinemas Baldwin Hills 15 is at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza, 3650 W. Martin Luther King Jr. Blvd. For more details, call (310) 337-4737 or visit www.PAFF.org.
OurWeekly had the opportunity to review some of the films that will be presented at the festival.
Of Good Report
Initially censored in its native South Africa, Of Good Report is comparatively mild when balanced against the fare typically offered up to American moviegoers. That said, there is ample sex and violence in this homage to the film noir genre, telegraphed by our first glimpse of Parker Sithole (played by Mothusi Mogano), its protagonist as he staggers into the early frames. The barren landscape and squeaky sound of a donkey-powered well are reminiscent of a Sergio Leone Spaghetti Western, the first of many nods to cinematic conventions throughout the film.
Like all true noir heroes, Parker is doomed as he picks loose teeth from his blood caked scalp, his body beaten, his clothing dirty and tattered, and a pistol tucked into his waistband, the result of events that unfold in flashback, a technique that here is slightly confusing as it is utilized throughout the film’s 110 minutes.
We next see a stoic, clean-cut Parker, newly arrived in rural Zimbabwe to teach high school. Before arriving at his new job however, he is seduced at a local tavern in a chance encounter with Nolitha (in an obvious nod to “Lolita,” the famous novel and film adaptation by Vladimir Nabokov) a precocious young girl, who later turns out to be a student in his classroom, and the means for his ruin.
Played by the nubile Petronella Tshuma, Nolitha is, by turns, naïve and provocative, “fast” for her age at that confusing interval between adolescence and womanhood. Parker as her foil, is damaged goods behind his nerdish façade, two sides of a coin succulently played by Mogano without a single word in the screenplay.
The origins of this pathology lie within a twisted mother/son relationship in the vein of Hitchcock’s “Psycho,” and likely exacerbated by prior Post Traumatic Stress Disorder-induced military service in the Congo.
Of Good Report lacks the polished look of “slick” Hollywood production values while offering a subtle depiction as opposed to the graphic gore of “Dexter” and other thematically similar subject matter.
This dysfunctional affair is effectively rendered in true noir tradition, via the gorgeous black and white photography by Jonathon Kovel. The camera movement seems occasionally tentative, but as a whole is a positive offering from the growing South African film industry, and earmarks director Jahmil X.T. Qubeka as a talent to watch.
Inner City Champions
Basketball was once a way out of the ghetto when Freeman Williams and Dwayne Polee ruled the court at Manual Arts High in South Los Angeles. Separated in age by a decade, the two former professional players were considered two of the finest prep stars in Los Angeles history and each saw their ultimate dream come true with NCAA and NBA fame.
The 2012 documentary Inner City Champions, on display this week during the Pan African Film Festival, is a rare and personalized look inside the hearts and minds of these two local hoopsters and the mean streets they were reared in. Director Kenneth Taylor and producer Fred Hawthorne were able to delve into an aspect of hoop dreams that many observers outside of inner-city life have come to stereotype: That there is supposedly no home foundation and no kid hosts the courage and discipline for personal achievement.
Williams remains the second all-time leading scorer in NCAA Division 1 history compiling well over 3,000 points at Portland State University in the mid 1970s. He had made a name for himself earlier in City Southern Section basketball as a “pure shooter” who could rattle off 40 points by halftime. Polee’s game was equally impressive in the mid-80s, so much so that legendary Coach Jerry Tarkanian of the University of Nevada, Las Vegas made him his top recruit.
The two shined on their respective college teams—particularly Williams who scored an amazing 81 points in a 1977 game against Rocky Mountain College—and saw their respective dreams come true in the National Basketball Association with Williams completing a 15-year professional career. Polee would lead Pepperdine to two consecutive NCAA tournament births, but had to retire early from the professional ranks because of a bad knee. With an exhaustive sigh Polee explained his early retirement: “I’d gone as far as I could in basketball.”
In some ways the two men are two opposites. Williams found the lure of fast cars, fast women, drugs and alcohol would not satisfy his desire for self introspection. Even after his playing days, Williams admitted it took years to discover who he really was outside of the immediate gratification of cheering fans and press adulation. Polee would quickly leave UNLV and arrive at Pepperdine University in Malibu and there he applied his Christian faith to his basketball acumen, as well as in his studies. He graduated from the prestigious Church of Christ school on time and on stage in his cap and gown.
“When I found that I no longer had the desire for basketball, I got depressed and started drinking,” said Polee who received a degree in Social Work. “My faith rescued me at that point. I’m fortunate that I had something to fall back on.” Polee is currently director of basketball operations at the University of San Francisco.
The two came back to their alma mater in 2011 to help coach Manual Arts into the playoffs for the first time in more than a decade. The Toilers advanced one game into the tournament, and that accomplishment elicited an emotional response from Williams in remembering the glory days: “I was once called the Black Pete Maravich,” he said. “ I had it all…the cars, the sex, the drugs. I was treated like royalty. I learned later that drugs prevent you from doing anything positive. Drugs always mess up your plans.” Williams remains basketball coach at Manual Arts.
The scenes of South L.A. served as a unique backdrop in looking into the family lives of each man. They were among the rare few who grew up during the era of poverty, gangs and later, crack cocaine, who were fortunate to live their dreams. Each jumped at the chance to repay their debt to dedicated parents, coaches and life-long friends, many of whom never had the chance to leave the ghetto to pursue the “good life.”
Inner City Champions provides an excellent opportunity for South L.A. natives who were teens during the 1970s and 1980s to relive those fabulous hoop moments and to reflect on the longer, more important goal of a full, enriched life that is best exemplified when one can “give back.”
Cuba: An African Odyssey
Cuba: An African Odyssey starts off with footage of recently deceased Nelson Mandela visiting Fidel Castro in Cuba shortly after his emancipation from his Robben Island prison, and poses the question of how a friendship could develop between a venerated symbol of human dignity and racial reconciliation, and a human rights abuser and all around despot.
The answers lie at the junction between the end of colonialism and the global maneuvering of the Cold War. Directed by female Egyptian filmmaker Jihan El-Tahri for European television, this documentary contains an overwhelming combination of combat footage, interviews, and speeches. At times confusing with all the political intrigues and subplots, the film may be more digestible for viewers with prior knowledge of Afro-Latino relations of the last half-century.
The post-World War II era saw the former colonies of darkest Africa shed their ties to their former European masters. Ready to intervene as the newly liberated states took the tentative steps towards self-determination were the Western powers led by the United States, and Russia and it’s Eastern Bloc allies, eager to spread their Communist doctrine into the Southern Hemisphere.
Interviews with active players like CIA station chief Larry Devlin and covert operative Frank Wisner reveal that the Americans were enamored of the vast resources held within the African Mother lode, and attracted by the possibility of gaining another sphere of influence after its disastrous Vietnam experience, while simultaneously afraid of the risk of further damage to U.S. prestige at the hands of their socialist rivals.
Not willing to directly engage each other due to the possibility of nuclear warfare, the Superpowers chose to sway the course of geopolitics through the encouragement and support of proxies, or surrogate parties. Thus began a continental tug of war, involving places and players like Angola and Agostinho Neto, Guinea-Bissau and Amilcar Cabral, and The Congo and Patrice Lumumba.
Other interlopers on a lesser scale included China in Tanzania, and North Korea in Zimbabwe.
Cuba presented a special case, as government official Jorge Risquet notes. In spite of their socialist commitment, “we didn’t like the Chinese or the Russians telling us what to.” This wish for autonomy shaped Cuban policy for the duration of the Cold War.
Motivated by the vast shadow of African heritage within it’s population, the multi-ethnic country backed no less than 17 separate insurrections within the Dark Continent. The strategic position of the Congo and its borders shared with nine different countries compelled it to escalate its activities, by tasking veteran commander and Afro-Cuban Victor Dreke to recruit “dark skinned” troops for covert insertion into the area to train guerrilla forces. Meeting them there was a heavily disguised, light skinned Latino, who turned out to be Ernesto “Che” Guevara.
These operations transitioned from covert to overt, as the Cuban presence eventually rose to 450,000 plus troops, with the U.S. monitoring troop strength by satellite photos documenting the number of baseball diamonds created for the Cuban’s leisure.
Other participants were not above switching sides. One of the more intriguing figures was Jonas Savimbi, leader of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (UNITA). Initially a protégée of the Communist Party, he was a brilliant military strategist and diplomat who alternately curried favor with China, South Africa, and the U.S.
A man of charisma and intellect, with a command of half a dozen languages, he eventually passed himself off as an anti-Communist freedom fighter, winning the support of right-wing bigwigs in conservative southern states. These prodigious talents led to a White House visit, where he charmed Ronald Reagan into gifting him with an arsenal of Stinger anti-aircraft missiles, over the objections of CIA director William Casey.
Castro and Cuba’s investment eventually paid off with a victory over a contingent of South African and UNITA forces at the Battle of Cuito Cuanavale in 1988. The largest military engagement on the continent since World War II, it marked the end of Angola’s Civil War, and led to the negotiation table in New York’s United Nations. With Jorge Risquet as Castro’s point man, the Cubans agreed to withdraw their forces in exchange for the end of apartheid, and independence for the nearby state of Namibia in what became known as the Tripartite Accord.
The release of Nelson Mandela was secured in 1990.
At 118 minutes, Cuba: An African Odyssey deserves close attention, and might benefit from multiple viewings. Topical and relevant, it reminds us that ideals and principles take a back seat to economic pragmatism.
Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergence of a People
Thomas Allen Harris’ documentary Through a Lens Darkly: Black Photographers and the Emergences of a People, breaks the norms of the imagery that people have come to associate with Black history in this country. While photographs have been a tool used by White America to negatively depict Black people dating back to the dawn of photography in the 19th century, Harris showcases Black photographers’ work throughout history, and how they portrayed their people in a positive manner.
With the emergence of photography as a marketing tool in the late 19th century, two legacies of Black Americans emerged. Harris’ documentary focuses on both, the positive imagery, which portrayed Black people’s strength; Black people as politicians, as people who were gainfully employed and supported themselves, and as people who were distinguished. Then there is the negative imagery, which showed Black Americans as savages, and as lazy people who had the intelligence of a child.
By showcasing Black photographers throughout history, Harris was able to tell a drastically different story than what the media and advertisers told to worldwide audiences for well over a century. The documentary showcases images that have never been seen of the ways that Black people have lived in this country. While the majority of these images were not distributed nationally, staged images of Black people commiting crimes or acting silly reached the masses, which shaped the way that many people in this country have negatively viewed an entire race of Americans.
Black photographers who are featured in the documentary are Jules Lion, James Presley Ball, James Van Der Zee, Gordon Parks, Roy DeCarava, Debrorah Willis, Carrie Mae Weems, Lorna Simpson Anthony Barboza, Lyle Ashton Harris, Hank WIllis Thomas, Gleen Ligon, Coco Fusco and Clarissa Sligh.
Harris also showcases photos from Black family photo albums, which showed another real and positive depiction of African Americans throughout the years.
Photography work is shown from the creation of the art form in the 1840s, through the Civil War, Reconstruction, the World Wars, Harlem Renaissance, Civil Rights era, and through present day Black America. The documentary touches on the ways that Black leaders, such as Fredrick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, W. E. B. Dubois, and Marcus Garvey used photography to bring about societal change.
Finding Samuel Lowe
In the documentary, Finding Samuel Lowe former media executive Paula Williams Madison seeks to learn more about who she is and where her family came from.
The film begins with Madison speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus in 2012, during which she expresses her desire that young people grow up understanding that there is nothing wrong with African-ness. “We have to know where we’re from,” Madison said. “We have to stop defining ourselves around slavery.”
Madison is from Harlem, but her blood runs deeper than that.
Her grandfather, Samuel Lowe, emigrated from China to Jamaica in search of work. While there, he met a local woman and had a daughter, Nell Vera Lowe Williams, Madison’s mother. Samuel Lowe returned to China in 1934, leaving his young daughter behind.
Madison’s childhood mirrors that of her mother, growing up in a single-parent household. Yet Madison was driven to succeed, graduating from college and eventually becoming the Executive Vice President of Diversity at NBCUniversal.
However, career achievements could not fill the emptiness she felt by the longing to know more about her Chinese roots.
Joined by her older brothers, Madison travels to Jamaica looking for clues into the life of the grandfather they never met. Their discoveries eventually take the siblings to China, where even more surprises await them.
Produced by The Africa Channel, Finding Samuel Lowe takes viewers along for an emotional ride of personal discovery.
OurWeekly’s Merdies Hayes, Gregg Reese, Jason Lewis, and Robert Gillard contributed to this article.