Sunday, January 30, 2011

BAMcinématek & ActNow Foundation join forces for NEW VOICES IN BLACK CINEMA

A five-day film festival, being thrown by and at BAMcinématek, together with the Fort Greene, Brooklyn-based ActNow Foundation and titled ActNow: New Voices in Black Cinema, opens this Friday, February 4. According to the BAM press release, the series reflects the wide spectrum of views and themes within the African diasporan communities in Brooklyn and beyond. Home to five ActNow screenings since August 2009, BAMcinématek continues this partnership, providing exposure to new and existing voices in black independent cinema.

The series highlights both new narrative works such as Coming Back For More (2010), a documentary about Sly Stone’s long-awaited return to the stage; SUS (2010) set entirely in a British interrogation room on election night in 1979 when Margaret Thatcher first came to power; and Heart of Stone (2009), which focuses on the rise, fall, and rise of a Newark high school; and "classics" such as Wendell B. Harris’ newly restored American independent, the 22-year-old Chameleon Street (1989), which won the Sundance Grand Jury Prize.  There's more, and you can find the entire series listed here.

New Voices in Black Cinema got TrustMovies to thinking about the long history of blacks in film -- in front of the camera and (not often enough) behind it. Mr. Harris, shown above, after this big Sundance win, has pretty much disappeared from the film scene. As an actor he did a small role in the now-famous but hardly ground-breaking Road Trip (which gave Todd Phillips his first big hit). According to his Wikipedia entry, Harris is is "currently in post-production for the forthcoming documentary, Arbiter Roswell, a 14-year project that chronicles the relationship between public opinion, the media, and the military-industrial complex." Sounds good, but who knows when this entry was actually written. The IMDB makes no mention of Arbiter Roswell, though it sounds worth seeing.

Speaking of Chameleon Street (below), consider this little piece that appeared in the NY Times on January 29, 1990, after the film walked away with the top Sundance prize, while To Sleep With Anger by Charles Burnett, another whatever-happened-to black filmmaker, was awarded "special recognition" from the jury (Burnett has been working a lot in the meantime, but on projects -- TV Movies, shorts, etc. -- that appear to be off the critical radar.). The article ends with the sentence: "If there was a statement implicit in the awards this year, it was the diversity and growing strength of black film makers." Yeah, right. We hear this periodically about new black filmmakers. And then...?  Very little. Or nothing. Or nothing for awhile. Despite the continuing work of Spike Lee and Tyler Perry, the cupboard seems pretty bare.

Remember Carl Franklin, who gave us the terrific One False Move and the very good Devil in a Blue Dress way back when? He's done a few so-so to OK films since then, plus quite a bit of even better television and cable. At least he's been working, and in a relatively mainstream manner.  I sometimes wonder if there is an expectation from film critics and perhaps the industry in general that black directors should work primarily on "black films."  (Franklin, for instance, did the film version of the Anna Quindlen novel One True Thing, which is about as far from "the black experience" as you can get.) Working from an expectation like that, Gregg Araki would have to concentrate only on Japanese American movies.  As has been pointed out elsewhere, there is not a single black nominated for anything in the major categories (maybe the minor ones, too) for this year's Academy Awards. I guess it just wasn't much of a "black experience" year. But why should that keep black filmmakers from making films about any and every subject?

Back to the BAM fest: TrustMovies has seen four of the films on display and found them of varying quality. Having viewed Chameleon Street upon its debut two decades ago and found it interesting, more from a philosophical/content standpoint than from any visual/cinematic experience, it would be interesting to view it again. What it has to say about the difficulty if being black and American is anything but the usual straight-forward racism, and what the film most interestingly calls to mind in term of black identity is John Guare's Six Degrees of Separation, the play of which appeared one year after Chameleon Street and the movie version four years later. It should be most interesting to see how Mr. Harris' film holds up -- and why or why not.

An excellent documentary not by a black filmmaker (Beth Kruvant) but about a black man who helps change a school, its students, faculty and board of advisers is very much worth a look if you have not already seen it. Heart of Stone is a surprising movie, rich in history and possibilities, about a principal of a school in Newark and how he practically single-handedly turns it around into its former days of glory. When the DVD appeared last year, I covered it and did a short interview with the filmmaker. You can find that post here. See this one and be enriched, amazed, surprised and moved.

When NIGHT CATCHES US opened just two or three months back, I was gratified by the generally fine reviews it received and, though I was not invited to see the film prior to its release, I immediately stuck it on my must-see list.  Now that I've seen it (it arrives on DVD next week, February 1), I have to admit to some disappointment. It's not a bad film at all, but in terms of moviemaking skill, it is somewhat slow and obvious. Set back in two time frames -- that of the rise of the Black Panther/Black Power movement in the 60s and then some years later in the 70s, when a "disgraced" member of the group returns home for his father's funeral and must face the ire of his ex-companions -- this is the first full-length features from female black filmmaker Tanya Hamilton.  It certainly shows promise, and Hamilton managed to get two fine actors Kerry Washington (above, right) and Anthony Mackie (above, left) into her fold.

The story has its hook -- of course, we want to know what happened and why -- and the lead performances are fine, as are those of the supporting actors.  But Hamilton's film technique is only adequate and the writing pretty prosaic. The period is captured well enough, and this should take some of us older folk back to the days of Bobby Seale, Huey Newton, Stokely Carmichael and Angela Davis -- forcing us to remember those times, what we thought then, and what we think and feel now. I am a little surprised at the better-than-average reviews for the film. Perhaps critics were so pleased simply to see these days a black film that was not made by Tyler Perry --  whose work I try to appreciate -- god knows, I try! -- but which drives me up the f-ing wall with its combination of cornball cliché and idiotic religious fervor. I'll stick with Hamilton and watch her grow.

The last film of the films in the fest that I've viewed is a British walk down memory lane called SUS. Based on the play by prolific playwright Barrie Keefe, first produced back in 1979 (when both the play and its subsequent film are set), the film (also written by Keefe) takes place on the night of the 1979 General Election in Britain, which put Margaret Thatcher into the Prime Minister power slot for the first time. The movie's no sweet nostalgia trip, however, as it never at all swerves from its theatrical roots. It takes place in a police station where two white detectives (Ralph Brown and Rafe Spall) have brought in a black man (Clint Dyer, shown below) for questioning in the death of his wife earlier that evening. Are they racist pigs? Will they give it to their poor prisoner in verbal and physical spades? And will we hear speech after puny, lying speech from Mrs Thatcher, underscoring what the irony of what this election will mean for minorities and the underclass?

Yes, yes, and yes again -- which makes the movie a bit of a slough. To his credit Keefe wrote the play at the beginning of the Thatch's reign, even though the film itself was made years later. Prescience is a virtue, and so are the three performances here, all of a thorough, realistic, unhappy piece. Brown is old school nasty, Spall (Timothy's boy) is new school vicious, and poor Dyer is put-upon badly. Initially he holds his own, but the physical and verbal brutality of his adversaries, along with their complete and nearly unconscious racism is unending and just about unbearable. You want to scream, pull out a knife and kill both these pigs -- which is exactly what the filmmakers want. Director Robert Heath does a good job of blocking and keeping things moving, but the film is finally far too schematic not to seem like agitprop, truthful or not.

I'd like to see more of what's in store in this festival, but as time is limited, I probably won't. Don't let that stop you, however. ActNow: New Voices in Black Cinema begins this Friday, February 4 and plays Saturday, Feb. 5; Sunday, Feb. 6; Tuesday, Feb. 8 and Wed, Feb. 9.

Note: various filmmakers will appear in person at selected screenings, so check the complete program here for the where and when you can see them.

The Wall Street Journal is the BAMcinématek and BAM Rose Cinemas sponsor.

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